Antiwar sentiment ran high as bloody news arrived from the war zone day after day. The Democratic platform declared the war a "failure," demanding its end. It looked like a bad year for Republicans.
A young Republican congressman, a veteran who had won fame on the battlefield, stumped across all-important Ohio. He did not like the incumbent Republican president. But there was no way he wanted a Democrat elected.
"Why is the war a failure to them?" this congressman asked on the stump. "It is only a failure because if it succeeds they fail."
Does that raw rhetoric sound familiar? The year was 1864. The congressman was James Garfield, who as a young colonel had led Union forces on a victorious campaign in Kentucky, winning promotion to general. The quote from Garfield's 1864 stump speech is reported in "Garfield," Allan Peskin's biography of the man who later became our 20th president.
In the summer of 1864, Democrats banked on riding antiwar sentiment into the White House. But in September, Atlanta fell and political momentum shifted.
Abraham Lincoln won re-election.
The Democratic presidential debate on MSNBC last week provided evidence that at least some Democrats are now wary of positioning their party in 2008 as it was in 1864. The three top-tier candidates refused to pledge to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by 2013, the end of their would-be first term.
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois would only pledge to "reduce our presence there to the mission of protecting our embassy, protecting our civilians and making sure that we're carrying out counterterrorism activities there." Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York concurred. "It may require combat, Special Operations Forces or some other form of that, but the vast majority of our combat troops should be out," she said.
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina also would not commit to removing all troops by 2013. Nonetheless, he argued that what Clinton advocated was "continuation of the war," while what he advocated was not. When moderator Tim Russert pressed him, however, Edwards appeared to concede that he would also continue the war in the face of certain contingencies.
"Would you send combat troops back in if there was genocide?" asked Russert.