Ruminations from the Right: Republicans, Iraq and the 2008 Elections, Part II

The domestic legacy of President Bush’s will require a delicate tightrope walk by Republican officials, perhaps beyond the talents of even the most agile politicians—all to the Democrats’ advantage.

For Part I of this essay, clickhere.

Republican dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq has been growing, as demonstrated in recent weeks. Yet contrary to the expectations frequently voiced in the mainstream media, the chances of anything more than limited GOP desertions from the president within the near future are actually rather slim. For one thing, many conservatives sincerely believe that Iraq is the central front in the great geopolitical and ideological struggle of our time against radical Islam. Their unhappiness with the past management of this war does not mean they now favor U.S. withdrawal. Indeed very few congressional Republicans agree with the Democrats on this point. Bush is also in a strong position on the war as commander-in-chief, regardless of his general unpopularity.

In political terms, he has repeatedly shown that he can outmaneuver the Democrats on Iraq-for example, over continued wartime funding-regardless of popular discontent, depending on how the issue is framed. There is every reason to believe based that he will persevere in his chosen course with only tactical changes. Many Republicans in Congress also feel relatively safe in their districts and in their re-election chances; they are not especially vulnerable to anti-war pressures.

Moreover, the third of the country that still supports Bush on Iraq is exactly the same constituency that GOP conservatives must satisfy: hawkish, red-state Republicans unready to quit the war. Witness, for example, the Republican presidential debates of this summer. All the candidates except Ron Paul (R-TX) competed to outdo each other in their unyielding determination to stick it out in Iraq-this, in spite of the countless frustrations of the past four years. If GOP primary voters were remotely dovish on this issue, presumably one of the leading Republican candidates would have picked up on it by now.

This leaves the top GOP presidential candidates, along with their congressional associates, in a very tricky situation as the general election approaches. Bush currently appears unlikely to de-escalate substantially. As the war persists, so will American casualties. Popular support for the Iraq War will therefore decline even further, but conservatives will continue to insist on "no surrender." In order to win conservative support along with their party's presidential nomination, GOP candidates will probably continue to take a hawkish stand on the war. They will subsequently be in a position whereby they must convincingly promise the general public something other than more of the same in Iraq.

Congressional Republicans will likewise be forced either to maintain an increasingly unpopular stance of bloody-minded tenacity, or to disassociate themselves from the president's failures, having previously supported the war for the past four years. Such a delicate tightrope walk may be beyond the talents of even the most agile politicians. The more likely outcome by November 2008, if American casualties in Iraq continue at anything approaching current levels, is that the public will simply favor whichever party takes the clearer stand in favor of withdrawal.

The Democrats, needless to say, have their own vulnerabilities on Iraq. For one thing they are truly divided on fundamental issues of war and peace. The liberal, anti-war base of the party is energized, furious, well financed and calling for immediate military disengagement from the region. The Washington-based Democratic elite, on the other hand, understandably balks at the idea the United States can suddenly withdraw from Iraq without calamitous consequences.

Moreover, leading Democrats know that they have their own version of the GOP's current dilemma as 2008 approaches: they must respond to pressure for disengagement, while simultaneously convincing the general public that they are strong and credible on national security-always a problem for the Democratic Party. They must also argue for American withdrawal, while at the same time insisting that such withdrawal will not leave Iraq an even worse disaster than it is now-an unbelievable position to take. Yet there are signs they may be able to pull it off.

Hillary Clinton (D-NY), in particular, has frequently taken positions that are relatively hawkish for her party. No doubt she and her advisors made a calculation years ago, quite rightly, that a liberal-Democratic female candidate would never be elected President of the United States without appearing tough on defense. Moreover she communicates a sense of real backbone that her husband does not. As a confirmed left-wing scold, Hillary has profound personal and political weaknesses. She is not the most likable candidate for President, and she triggers an extraordinarily negative reaction from many Americans.

Under ordinary circumstances she could hardly be elected to the White House, but 2008 may be her year. She still has enough credibility and organization within the Democratic Party to be able to win the nomination in spite of her constantly changing positions on Iraq. And of the leading Democratic candidates, she is the one who will be hardest to caricature as soft on defense. At that point her long-term decision to hew to the center on matters of national security will finally pay off. She will be able to present herself as the candidate who favors "responsible" disengagement from Iraq but nevertheless understands the terrorist threat to the United States. Popular dissatisfaction with the war and the administration will do the rest.