The Iraq War And The Damaged Legacy Of The GOP
The Iraq War did significant damage to the legacy of the Republican Party.
Ross Douthat argues in today’s New York Times that the Iraq War is largely the reason for the Republican Party’s current problems as well as the fact that Democrats are dominating national politics today:
Obama didn’t just benefit from the zeal that entered the Democratic Party through the antiwar movement; he also benefited from the domestic policy vacuum left by Bush’s Iraq-ruined second term. The Bush White House’s “compassionate conservatism” was the last major Republican attempt to claim the political center — to balance traditional conservative goals on taxes and entitlement reform with more bipartisan appeals on education, health care, immigration and poverty. And as long as the Republican Party was successfully hovering near the middle, the Democrats had to hover there as well.
But once Bush’s foreign policy credibility collapsed, his domestic political capital collapsed as well: moderates stopped working with him, conservatives rebelled, and the White House’s planned second-term agenda — Social Security reform, tax and health care reform, immigration overhaul — never happened.
This collapse, and the Republican Party’s failure to recover from it, enabled the Democrats to not only seize the center but push it leftward, and advance far bolder proposals than either Al Gore or John Kerry had dared to offer. The Iraq war didn’t just make Obama possible — it made Obamacare possible as well.
Nor is it a coincidence that these liberal policy victories have been accompanied by liberal gains in the culture wars. True, there’s no necessary connection between the Bush administration’s Iraq floundering and, say, the right’s setbacks in the gay-marriage debate. But cultural change is a complicated thing, built on narratives and symbols and intuitive leaps.
In a similar way, even though Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney weren’t culture warriors or evangelical Christians, in the popular imagination their legacy of incompetence has become a reason to reject social conservatism as well. Just as the post-Vietnam Democrats came to be regarded as incompetent, wimpy and dangerously radical all at once, since 2004 the Bush administration’s blunders — the missing W.M.D., the botched occupation — have been woven into a larger story about Youth and Science and Reason and Diversity triumphing over Old White Male Faith-Based Cluelessness.
Of all the Iraq war’s consequences for our politics, it’s this narrative that may be the war’s most lasting legacy, and the most difficult for conservatives to overcome.
Douthat isn’t alone in making this claim. Over the past week, as the nation has marked the 10th Anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, and as pundits have chimed in to discuss the matter, several people on the right have reached similar conclusions. The Washington Examiner’s Philip A. Klein argued last week, for example, that the Iraq War essentially made Obama’s election, and the passage of the Affordable Care Act possible. On Friday in The Wall Street Journal Peggy Noonan mirrored the arguments that Douthat makes in his column by detailing the damage that the war has done to the GOP’s reputation in the foreign policy arena as well as domestically, especially among younger voters. The most interesting take on the whole issue, though, comes from Daniel McCarthy at The American Conservative, who analogizes the GOP’s position in the post-Iraq world to the problems that the Democratic Party had for decades after the Vietnam War:
America has been at war in Afghanistan for the entire adult life of any voter under 30. For still younger Americans, every living memory is of a country with troops in combat overseas—and for what? The wars haven’t brought prosperity: just the opposite. They haven’t reaffirmed traditional sex roles or Christianity or family values, all of which are challenged by veterans coming home with missing limbs or mangled minds. The cultural resonances of this decade of war are the opposite of those of Vietnam; they’re closer to those of Great Britain after World War I. Britain, too, won its war and wondered what that meant.
Republicans split over Bush’s wars as deeply as Democrats once split over Vietnam. The raw numbers aren’t similar—the antiwar right is not as numerous as the antiwar left once was—but the philosophical depth of the divide is as great. And it’s a generation gap. Boomer Republicans are still refighting old wars—Benghazi is the new Khe Sanh, and they’ve adopted Israel not only as avatar of the lost South Vietnam but as symbol of the Providential favor and military virtue our nation lost in the 1960s. Yet even the younger evangelicals—let alone Ron Paul’s youthful supporters and the neo-traditionalist “crunchy cons”—don’t buy it.
The GOP never learned to talk to the post-Vietnam generation in the first place; over the last decade, it compounded the problem by launching wars that, far from resolving the unfinished business of the Vietnam era, only made clear that those who are refighting the conflicts of that time are oblivious to today’s realities.
While Republicans wage a war on the past, Barack Obama has staked claim to the future—in the same way that Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan once did. The reputation for competence in wielding power that Nixon (before Watergate) and Reagan accumulated now accrues to Obama’s advantage. He brought the troops home from Iraq—however reluctantly—and is on course to end the war in Afghanistan next year. His foreign policy, like Nixon’s and Reagan’s, involves plenty of military force. But like those Republicans, the incumbent Democrat has avoided debacles of the sort that characterized the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush.
The Republican Party may not be able to escape its McGovern phase, even if Democrats screw up (as they will) and we briefly get a Republican Carter. The party and the ideology soaked into it have lost their reputation for competence, and they’ve lost the emotional resonances that come with being the party of America: victory, prosperity, normality. Instead the resonances that come from the War on Terror are of a party and an era marked by resentment, recession, and insecurity. Although the party still sees Ronald Reagan when it looks in the mirror, what the rest of the country sees is George W. Bush—much as post-Vietnam Democrats continued to think of themselves as the party of Franklin Roosevelt when in the minds of most Americans they had become the party of Johnson and McGovern.
Until the Republican Party can come to grips with its failure, the Democrats will be the party Americans trust to govern.
Now, obviously, history does not always repeat itself exactly, and there are plenty of differences between the post-Vietnam era and what it did to the Democratic Party and the post-Iraq era and what has happened to the Republican Party. For one thing, it’s fairly obvious that the problems that the GOP faces can be traced to more than just the Iraq War. Like it or not, there was a Republican in office when the economy began to collapse in 2007-2008, and even though President Obama has been in office for four years now, polls continue to show that the public places primary blame for the continued weak state of the economy on George W. Bush. Other polls show that the public has an overwhelmingly negative view of Congressional Republicans. Additionally, the recently concluded Presidential race demonstrated quite aptly the problems that the GOP has with a wide variety of demographic groups ranging from younger voters to women to minorities. In most cases, those problems have more to do with the policy positions that Republicans take on issues such as same-sex marriage, birth control, and immigration than they do with the Iraq War.
Nonetheless, I think that both Douthat and McCarthy, along with Klein and Noonan, are making some excellent points, and providing some guidance for a Republican Party that is still engaged in a conversation about how to recreate itself in the light of two consecutive Presidential Election losses in a row. For reasons that only they can explain, Republicans still don’t seem to understand just how unpopular the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, and specifically its policies regarding the Iraq War specifically and intervention in foreign countries more specifically. While the American public was willing to support an aggressive posture toward Al Qaeda in the wake of the September 11th attacks, it’s long been the case that there has never been much support for a militaristic foreign policy, at least not since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, President Clinton’s adventures in the Balkans, which I still consider to have been ill-advised, were not exactly heavily endorsed by public opinion. One reflection of that fact can be seen in the positive reception that George W. Bush’s comments during the 2000 Presidential Campaign criticizing a foreign policy based on nation-building received. Sadly, when he became President, Bush didn’t exactly adhere to that rhetoric.
It’s easy, and in many cases too easy, to point to a single factor to explain something as complicated as the reason why the Republican Party finds itself in its current predicament. Nonetheless, one cannot deny that the most mistaken and unpopular war in American history has had a significant impact on the party that initiated it.