The GOP Can Survive Its Iraq Wounds

As soon as the Democrats screw up, voters will give the Republicans a chance.

A passel of punditry has emerged recently questioning whether the Republican Party will soon recover from the foreign-policy incompetence of the George W. Bush presidency. Some pundits foresee a long period of eclipse before the party will recapture the full confidence of the American people, so seared have they been by the U.S. fiasco in Iraq and the ongoing muddle in Afghanistan. Thus, in this view, the GOP’s fate is set—a long winter of minority-party status.

Perhaps, but not necessarily. Certainly, these pundits are correct in perceiving the magnitude of the blow sustained by the party when it lost its identity as the country’s most sober and adroit manager of U.S. foreign affairs. But these analyses miss a fundamental reality of U.S. presidential elections. They’re largely referendums, which means the GOP can recoup when—but only when—two things happen: first, an incumbent Democratic administration forfeits its standing with voters through a faltering presidential performance; and, second, the succeeding Republican president recaptures voter confidence with a winning four-year term.

The prediction of an inevitable dark period for Republicans was captured in three recent articles of note. An Iraq veteran and think tank fellow named Phillip Carter, writing in The Washington Post, notes that for three decades voters trusted Republicans more than Democrats on national security. Then came the Iraq War. "It shattered Republicans’ monopoly on national security and eroded service members’ allegiance to the GOP," writes Carter. He marshals polling statistics to demonstrate just how far the GOP has fallen when it comes to voter trust on issues of war and peace.

The Wall Street Journal’s veteran columnist Peggy Noonan weighed in with a column headlined, "Can the Republican Party Recover From Iraq?" She argues that the war and the 2008 financial crash "half killed" the party. "It’s still digging out," she writes, "and whether it can succeed is an open question." Noonan notes specific blows the party sustained from the war: It ruined the GOP’s reputation for foreign-affairs probity. It undercut the party’s identity as an institution of policy prudence and respect for reality. It terminated the party ascendance that began in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. Given its unnecessary cost, it eroded the party’s image as a sound steward of the public fisc. And it established a neoconservative dominance within the GOP that cut off any healthy intraparty debate on war issues.

Perhaps the most trenchant analysis comes from Daniel McCarthy, editor of The American Conservative. Writing in his magazine, McCarthy posits the thought that we don’t have a two-party system so much as a one-and-a-half-party system, whereby one party dominates and the other is relegated to half-party status. Between 1969 and 1993, he says, the Democrats were the half-party, stumbling through the national debate and occupying the White House for only four years during that twenty-four-year period.

The Democratic eclipse began, says McCarthy, with Lyndon Johnson’s catastrophic Vietnam war, which split his party and set it upon a course that was culturally unacceptable to mainstream Americans. "There were," writes McCarthy, "concrete connections between the conflict abroad and the increasingly radical social movements at home." Veterans returned disillusioned and, in many cases, addicted to drugs. Blacks wondered why they were called upon to assume a disproportionate war role for a nation in which they didn’t enjoy full freedoms. Young people became radicalized as they sought to avoid the war—and then grappled with the implications of their avoidance maneuvers. Ordinary Americans—Richard Nixon’s "Silent Majority"—increasingly felt disoriented as old norms and mores crumbled.

In this civic stew, the GOP emerged as "the party of simple military competence, patriotism, and national unity….Normal…meant center-right and Republican." And now, adds McCarthy, the Republicans are threatened by the same fate that befell Democrats with Vietnam and the cultural and social upheavals that followed.

Republicans, he notes, are now split over Bush’s wars as deeply as Democrats once were split over Vietnam. And, like Democrats of the Vietnam era, Republicans now seem stuck in old thinking from their heyday—thinking that is increasingly passé with mainstream voters searching for an understanding of what has hit their country and knocked it low. Writes McCarthy: "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 [George] McGovern."

Indeed, McCarthy doesn’t see any way out of this political morass for the GOP. "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."