Paying a Political
Price for Empire

Until now, virtually no one has paid a political price for the debacle in Iraq. President George W. Bush was reelected, and congressional Republicans increased their majorities in 2004. Leading administration officials have been lavished with praise, promoted to better jobs, and rewarded with medals. Never mind the growing death toll: Washington’s ivory tower warriors know how to take care of one another.

But now Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) has lost his state’s Democratic primary. He may yet survive with an independent run, but even then, the party rebuff was clear. And the principal issue was Iraq.

Lieberman originally seemed to have a lock on Connecticut. He was a reliable liberal soldier, while occasionally making socially conservative noises. Largely insubstantial, they nevertheless enhanced his national image.

Lieberman continued to bask in the praise of those who saw him as a moderate maverick after being named his party’s vice presidential nominee in 2000, though his sanctimonious air and lockstep support for the Bush administration’s war doomed his 2004 presidential bid. Still, he didn’t seem in danger this year – few three-term Senate incumbents lose.

Then unknown millionaire businessman Ned Lamont jumped into the race and pounded away at Lieberman, casting him as Bush’s chief Democratic enabler. Lamont is no pacifist: he seems to believe that the U.S. should support Israel no matter how many countries it bombs and how many people it kills. Nevertheless, Lamont turned the race into a referendum on Lieberman’s complicity in the administration’s catastrophic invasion of Iraq: Lamont pledged to “fix George Bush’s failed foreign policy.”

Thankfully, in this case, at least, democracy won.

Publicly, Republican partisans purport to be overjoyed. They claim that Lamont’s victory will push the Democrats to the left and undercut public confidence in the willingness of Democrats to confront terrorism. On election night, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman charged that the result provided evidence that Democrats are weak on defense and their party has been captured by extremists.

In fact, Republican Party hacks like Mehlman have long contended that the greatest strategic debacle in years can be used to win in November if spun correctly. Reporting on a Republican National Committee strategy memo, Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times reports,

“Some Republican candidates are distancing themselves from President Bush in fear of voter discontent with the war in Iraq. But a new GOP strategy memo argues that the war could prove to be an advantage for many Republican candidates, citing it as one of the most effective issues that will excite the party base in November.

“The memo, based on a Republican National Committee poll of GOP voters and obtained by the Los Angeles Times, lists Bush’s handling of ‘foreign threats’ as the No. 1 motivator of the Republican base, specifically citing his leadership on Iraq.”

If Republican voters really believe this, it might be wise to consider again restricting the right to vote. However superficially attractive Bush’s tough rhetoric might be, his policies have been disastrous. If that isn’t evident to reflexive conservatives, they might be incapable of responsible participation in the political process.

However, things probably aren’t quite that bad. RNC staffers look to be smoking funny cigarettes. Polls suggest disquiet in Iraq has reached GOP ranks and Republican congressmen are starting to distance themselves from the administration’s Iraq policy. For instance, the once reliably pro-war Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) has even suggested that Bush officials are not, shall we say, being entirely straight with the American people. This indicates that at least some Republican politicians don’t see Iraq as a winning issue.

Moreover, Republican partisans have responded with hysteria to Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ads that feature flag-draped coffins. House Majority Leader John Boehner declared: “To use those images to rally Democrats and raise money I think is appalling.”

That’s a laughable sentiment coming from the GOP, whose leaders have spent years seeking votes by waving the flag and vilifying their opponents. Today the people who voted to back the president’s plunge into the abyss of war blame critics, who opposed the debacle from the beginning, for allegedly encouraging insurgents and discouraging U.S. soldiers by criticizing the administration’s continuing failures.

In fact, Republicans don’t want Americans to know what the war is all about. Rep. Boehner and other Republican cronies are afraid that, for once, Democrats are making effective use of the flag. An active debate over Iraq, in which Americans are confronted with the real, and rising, costs of the war, is anathema to Republicans. The latter worry that they can’t win a real debate, as opposed to a demagogic slamfest run on GOP terms.

The Lieberman defeat offers an example of how important such a debate is, and how threatening it is to the GOP. If Iraq can be used to take out someone perceived as a moderate Democrat, it can be used against moderate and conservative Republicans.

At the very least, Iraq seems far more likely to inspire Democrats than Republicans to turn out, even in the face of the usual GOP smear campaign. Intensity of commitment matters. Lamont’s victory suggests that antiwar Democrats are prepared to turn out in force, probably in greater numbers than the dwindling band of hard-core Republican warriors.

After all, the GOP faithful must rationalize not only the evident failure of administration’s war policy, but the blinding incompetence of those who concocted the policy. How many Republicans will enthusiastically turn out to vote for GOP congressional candidates who, for nearly six years, have acted as blind administration shills?

Indeed, Lieberman first justified his threat to go independent if he lost by complaining that few people vote in the summer. But about half of registered Democrats turned out to oust him – at least twice the normal rate and far higher than the dismal 3 percent of voters in Virginia’s recent Democratic Senate primary race. When a real political debate was finally held on Iraq, Democrats responded en masse to oppose a disastrous, unnecessary war.

Moreover, the Republican tune of “don’t cut and run” may increasingly sound like “stay and die” to voters. Of course, GOP politicos have no other lyrics to sing, since they have few accomplishments to highlight. Iraq is a disaster, sliding toward sectarian civil war. Afghanistan is deteriorating.

The glorious crusade for democracy is a wreck, with Israel and Lebanon in flames. Iran and North Korea are further along in developing nuclear weapons. Russia is growing hostile.

America’s image continues to decline abroad. Support for Washington’s war on terrorism is falling even in allied states.

The Department of Homeland Security appears to be as much an impediment-to as an assist-in fighting terrorism. Federal disaster response capabilities themselves are a disaster. The administration is wasting money prodigiously. It has abused its powers – engaging in illegal spying, manipulating intelligence, and lying about issues great and small.

It’s impossible to say, “Vote Republican Because of Our Record.” The GOP’s only hope is to whine, “Ignore Our Record Because the Democrats Are Worse.”

That approach worked in 2004, but Lamont’s victory suggests that this line might no longer be effective. Barely one-third of voters approve of Bush’s war in Iraq, and even Republican support is falling. Bush does slightly better on terrorism, winning a bit under 50 percent approval. However, a plurality of those polled trust the Democrats even here, and most Americans apparently recognize that Iraq is making the problem of terrorism worse, not better.

For years the Bush administration and Republican Party have been running from reality. Back in the heady days of neocon political ascendancy at home and seeming victory abroad, author Ron Suskind reported a conversation with a senior Bush adviser:

“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'”

Oops. Ugly reality has intruded abroad, showing that al-Qaeda terrorists, Ba’athist insurgents, Hezbollah activists, Hamas voters, Iranian mullahs, Taliban fighters, Russian politicians, North Korean technicians, Chinese businessmen, and many other people around the world are busy creating their own realities. Ones that leave the Bushies to sit, study, and watch.

Moreover, these new foreign realities have generated new domestic realities. Most important, U.S. voters appear to be increasingly fed up with ineptitude and arrogance in Washington, especially when it is costing American lives and making the world a more dangerous place. Average people can’t easily toss out George W. Bush, but they could, and did, vote against Joseph Lieberman. His loss was a good first step, with many, many more worthy targets for defeat in November.