Post–Iraq War lessons for the GOP
The unpopular war hurt Republicans, but Obama’s failures could help.

DoD photo by Spc. Donte Baltimore, U.S. Army

U.S. Army 1st Lt. Seth Sanert with Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Division goes over the scheme of maneuver with his troops, in Baghdad, Iraq, on June 25, 2009.

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  • Whatever defenses there may be for the Iraq War, it was a political disaster for the GOP. @JonahNRO

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  • The Iraq War became an albatross for the GOP writes @JonahNRO.

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  • The failure of Obamacare touches more people’s lives directly than the war in Iraq did. @JonahNRO

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Is the Iraq War to blame for the mess we are in?

Now, I should qualify that question by explaining “mess” and “we.” By “mess,” I mean the dawn of Barack Obama’s second term, the predictably catastrophic rollout of Obamacare, the exploding debt and deficit, the stimulus boondoggles, etc. By “we,” I mean conservatives (particularly those, like me, who supported the war), but also anyone else who doesn’t think Obama has done a bang-up job.

There seems to be a growing consensus that the answer to that question is “yes.” In a recent column, the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein writes, “It’s hard to see how Obamacare would have become law if Bush had never invaded Iraq.” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat says the war is “responsible for liberalism’s current political and cultural ascendance.” In the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan laments that the war “muddied up the meaning of conservatism and bloodied up its reputation.” She even goes so far as to assert that the war “ended the Republican political ascendance that had begun in 1980.”

Quibbles aside, their most basic claim seems irrefutable. Whatever defenses there may be for the Iraq War, it was a staggering political disaster for the Republican Party. Is that fair? Maybe — or maybe not. As a matter of analysis, fair doesn’t have much to do with it.

That the war became an albatross for the GOP — particularly after so many pro-war Dems (like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Joe Biden) ran for the hills — is undeniable.

The backlash against the war emboldened liberals and opened their minds and hearts to a vast new sense of what was possible. During George W. Bush’s second term, liberals seemed to have lost the taste for cannibalism that had made the Democratic party such a great spectator sport. Gone were the obsessions with factionalism and the hand-wringing squabbles about appealing to the center.

Younger liberals in particular had shed their disdain for the label “Democrat.” Heck yeah, we’re Democrats. We’re “fighting Democrats,” as the left-wing bloggers liked to say. And that was before the “historic” candidacy of Barack Obama, pitted first against the pro-war dinosaurs of the Democratic party (again: Clinton, Biden), then against Senator John McCain, an energetic elder statesman who was actually more pro-war than Bush himself.

Obviously, none of this means that if there had been no Iraq War, Republicans would be sitting pretty. As Douthat notes, we might be in the middle of a second Hillary Clinton term. But a Hillary Clinton administration, minus the legacy of the Iraq War, might have been a far sight more conservative — and successful — than the spectacle of the Obama years.

The more interesting question is: “What do you do about it?”

One answer is for the GOP to do what it’s been doing. Fight, squabble, debate, and, ultimately, grope its way out of the ditch. The Republican National Committee’s recent “autopsy” had many flaws, but the impulse for introspection was not one of them.

Some didn’t even need a committee report. Whatever the merits of his positions, one has to admire the swiftness and alacrity of Senator Rand Paul’s positioning as a different kind of Republican.

Another (in no way exclusive) answer is to take a page from the Democrats.

If the Obama agenda has pulled the country leftward — and I think it has — that creates new opportunities for the GOP.

Obamacare, the stimulus, and the various green-energy boondoggles are in no literal way like the Iraq War. But as a matter of politics, Obama’s overreach is real. For instance, every promise the White House made about the Affordable Care Act has turned out to be untrue, overblown, or misleading. It borrows vast sums to make the health-care system more onerous, complicated, and expensive while still leaving 30 million uninsured.

The press coverage of this unfolding train wreck remains timid in a way that coverage of the war wasn’t. The moment the mainstream media could get away with calling Iraq a “quagmire” it did. With Obamacare, much of the press is like Kevin Bacon trying to be a traffic cop in Animal House. It shouts “All is well!” even as it’s being trampled by the crowd.

Sad as it may be to say so, the failure of Obamacare touches more people’s lives directly than the war did, meaning the media filter matters less.

Politics is about moments and personalities. Just ask Obama. By all means the GOP should keep working out its own problems as best it can, but its practical salvation in the near term may just have to depend on the right candidate taking advantage of the right moment, which President Obama may just be kind enough to provide.

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About the Author

 

Jonah
Goldberg

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    A bestselling author and columnist, Jonah Goldberg's nationally syndicated column appears regularly in scores of newspapers across the United States. He is also a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a member of the board of contributors to USA Today, a contributor to Fox News, a contributing editor to National Review, and the founding editor of National Review Online. He was named by the Atlantic magazine as one of the top 50 political commentators in America. In 2011 he was named the Robert J. Novak Journalist of the Year at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). He has written on politics, media, and culture for a wide variety of publications and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs. Prior to joining National Review, he was a founding producer for Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg on PBS and wrote and produced several other PBS documentaries. He is the recipient of the prestigious Lowell Thomas Award. He is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, The Tyranny of Clichés (Sentinel HC, 2012) and Liberal Fascism (Doubleday, 2008).  At AEI, Mr. Goldberg writes about political and cultural issues for American.com and the Enterprise Blog.

    Follow Jonah Goldberg on Twitter.


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