Democrats Fuel Draft Hysteria but Political Gain Unlikely

by Stuart Rothenberg September 10, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

Some Democrats have decided to try to transform the military draft into what the Social Security issue was 25 years ago.

Time and time again since the late 1970s, Democratic candidates and campaign committees sought to win the votes of seniors by raising questions about whether Republicans would dismantle Social Security if they ever won control of Congress.

The Democrats’ scare tactics on Social Security were not without basis. Republicans opposed the creation of Social Security, and for more than a decade, many conservative GOP candidates and high-profile officeholders, including former Rep. Newt Gingrich (Ga.), bashed the system and berated Democrats for establishing it.

Because the charges were not made up out of whole cloth, Democrats used the issue effectively for a number of election cycles. Only when enough Republicans changed their tunes and promised not to touch the government-run retirement plan did the issue fade. Even more recent GOP attempts to “privatize” part of Social Security didn’t scare seniors, since Republicans promised to grandfather them into a modified Social Security system.

More recently, Democrats have tried to use the comments of Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the deputy national security adviser, that a military draft “has always been an option” to scare young people (and their parents), with the obvious purpose of energizing opposition to the Iraq War and for the Democratic Party.

Immediately after Lute’s statement, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards sent out a release asserting, misleadingly, of course, that “President Bush is floating the idea of a draft” and referring to “the apparent steps the Administration is taking towards a draft.” (Not surprisingly, the campaign followed with a similarly misleading fundraising appeal.)

Unlike Edwards, New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton jumped into the discussion in a much more measured way. She wrote Bush a letter asking the White House to clarify its position on the draft, which the White House answered by saying the president does not support a draft.

The most misleading and irresponsible coverage of Lute’s remarks didn’t come from the American press or, aside from Edwards, most American politicians, but from the British press.

The Daily Telegraph’s headline roared, “White House Considers Return to Conscription,” while the Sunday Express offered, “U.S. May Bring Back the Draft.” Neither headline, of course, was even close to accurate.

In Kentucky, a group with the interesting name of Campaign to Defend America is running an anti-Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) TV ad suggesting that the Bush administration is planning to bring back the draft. (Perhaps not surprisingly, prominent liberal, Democratic blogger Markos Moulitsas Zuniga wrote that ideally “the party and allied organizations” would run a similar ad “from now until Election Day, not just in Kentucky, but in every contested Senate state and House district.”)

This draft frenzy wouldn’t be so noteworthy if it weren’t for an even bigger one in late 2004, shortly before that year’s elections.

In September 2004, the liberal group Rock the Vote, which technically is nonpartisan but often sounds and behaves like an extension of the Democratic Party, sent out e-mails to 650,000 people telling them they had been drafted, in an effort to turn them out on Election Day.

A number of critics of the Bush administration — most notably liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, but also editorials in the Philadelphia Daily News and The Baltimore Sun — tried to fan the flames to help the draft frenzy grow, even though there was no basis for believing a new draft possibly could get through Congress.

Not surprisingly, one of the loudest voices warning that Bush would bring back the draft if he were re-elected came from Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (Mass.).

Bush’s campaign immediately rejected Kerry’s charge, and since his re-election, the president never has suggested that he favors reinstituting the draft. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told Congress in 2005: “There isn’t a chance in the world that the draft will be brought back.”

When liberals raised the specter of a draft before the past presidential election, House Republicans gleefully brought up New York Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel’s bill to re-establish the draft only so they could bury it and discredit those warning of a new draft.

In fact, the hype, both in 2004 and more recently, about a draft has little to do with conscription and a lot to do with trying to mobilize opposition to the Iraq War.

Shortly after a 402-2 October 2004 House vote against a measure requiring two years of national service, the president of Rock the Vote, who opposes a draft and presumably should have been pleased with its lack of support, blasted Congress for “playing political games.”

In fact, there is no chance — absolutely none — that Congress would support reviving the draft given anything even remotely close to current international circumstances. Anybody who doubts that doesn’t know much about American politics.

Rangel remains one of the few supporters of a draft, but shortly after the midterm elections handed Democrats the House majority, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and senior Congressional Democrats dismissed the notion of a new draft.

It’s unlikely that the draft will become a major issue. At this point, everyone is on the same side. Neither party favors a draft, and no presidential hopeful in his or her right mind supports it. That won’t stop Rock the Vote and other anti-Iraq War voices from trying to scare voters (particularly the young), but it limits the impact of their tactics.