The Wreck of the War Party

The wild, drunken neocon joyride is over. After running as the candidate of national restraint and humility, George W. Bush metamorphosed into a modern Alexander the Great, promising to bring civilization and democracy to both the known and unknown worlds. He mobilized popular support for war in Iraq by manipulating dubious intelligence and spinning idyllic fantasies. The Republicans increased their congressional majorities by demonizing their critics, suggesting that opposition equaled defeatism and treason. The results were GOP victories in 2002 and 2004.

But like a classic Ponzi scheme, the Republican political scam eventually had to end. For a time the GOP could blame its manifold failures on former President Bill Clinton, Democratic Party opposition, media bias, French perfidy, foreign faithlessness, Pakistani double-dealing, UN ineffectiveness, Iranian interference, Russian skullduggery, and more. After six years, however, there is no one left to blame.

America has squandered its immense store of moral capital after Sept. 11. Iraq is a catastrophe, a strategic mistake of enormous proportions. North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon. Iran is busy moving ahead with its own atomic program. China and Russia, along with much of Europe, cheerfully obstruct, oppose, impede, and hinder U.S. initiatives. The American government is hated around the world, and especially in the Muslim and Arab worlds.

Democratic movements in Egypt and Lebanon are fizzling. The Sudanese conflict continues to rage. Latin America has embraced unregenerate leftists Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega despite Washington’s angry mutterings. Russia is reasserting its influence in the nations of Georgia and Ukraine. Today the U.S. government is more distrusted and Americans are less secure than before George W. Bush took office.

The domestic policy record is no better. Massive spending increases. Little respect and sometimes overt disdain for civil liberties. Centralization of power in Washington. The biggest expansion of the welfare state in 40 years. No progress on Social Security reform. And fulfillment of Lord Acton’s famous warning about power: pervasive abuse, pork-barreling, self-dealing, and corruption in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Perhaps most important has been the administration’s astounding combination of arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 George W. Bush’s stubborn simplicity seemed to affirm America’s moral rightness; today the president’s unchanging rhetoric in the face of endless disaster is recognized as dangerous indifference to reality. It has become all too evident to the majority of Americans that President Bush makes policy based on how he believes the world should be, not on how it really is.

The Republicans still thought they had a chance to hang on to their congressional majorities. Maldistricting in the House made it hard to dislodge more than a handful of incumbents. Moreover, GOP candidates sought to keep the contest focused on local issues.

The Republican demagoguery machine also was directed against Democratic congressional challengers – the president allowed that he wouldn’t say they were traitors or unpatriotic, but he said: "The Democrat approach in Iraq comes down to this: the terrorists win and America loses." The Republicans preferred to discuss sex scenes in novels by Virginia Democratic Senate hopeful James Webb rather than the war in Iraq or congressional overspending. The GOP recognized that nothing was more important than avoiding a debate over the party’s actual record in office.

Thankfully, the people were not fooled. Election-day polling found widespread dissatisfaction with Republicans on many issues, particularly congressional abuses. Most important, however, the election turned into a vote on George Bush and his misbegotten, unnecessary war in Iraq. Even a third of white evangelicals, perhaps the GOP’s most reliable voting bloc, pulled a Democratic lever. Observes Gary Jacobson of the University of California-San Diego, “One thing that’s true is this will have been a referendum election.”

President Bush’s approval rating is below 40 percent. Twice as many voters used their congressional ballot to express opposition as support for the president. While his sky-high approval ratings once helped elect Republicans to Congress, now he dragged them down.

Perhaps even more important was the war, deemed the most critical issue by voters – 49 percent said that Iraq was “extremely important.” Almost 60 percent of voters disapproved of the ongoing debacle, roughly twice the number who supported the conflict. Critics of the war were far more likely, by a four-to-one margin, to choose Democrats for Congress. Opposition to the war was particularly important in moving independents and moderates into the Democratic column. An exit poll found that 56 percent of voters favored withdrawal of some or all U.S. troops from Iraq.

Although people vote for or against candidates for many reasons, the war clearly affected many races. Before the balloting, pollster John Zogby observed, “Our polling has shown that several key issues have benefited the Democrats heading into next week’s election, but the war, far and away, has been the most important.” One unnamed GOP campaign analyst told the Washington Times, “The Iraq war is an overwhelming presence in this election that dwarfs all other issues. It is the issue of this campaign, and it is draining all enthusiasm out of GOP partisans while motivating the Democrats.”

It was James Webb’s opposition to the war, and Sen. George Allen’s unthinking, reflexive support of the Bush administration, that led Webb to switch parties, run, and win. Democrat Carol Shea-Porter, a county chairman, rode opposition to the war to an unexpected victory over Rep. Jeb Bradley (R-N.H.). Explicitly antiwar candidates also defeated Reps. Anne Northrup (R-Ky.) and Clay Shaw (R-Fla.).

The war may have been the deciding factor in Maryland, where decrepit Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) narrowly defeated the much more thoughtful and better qualified Lt. Gov. Michael Steele in the Senate race. Free Congress Foundation President Paul Weyrich believes the war also measurably hurt Republican Senators Mike DeWine (Ohio) and Rick Santorum (Pa.).

The Pennsylvania race is particularly interesting. Democratic State Treasurer Bob Casey is a social conservative, like Sen. Santorum. On Iraq, however, the two differed dramatically, with Santorum perhaps even more thoughtlessly hawkish than the president. Santorum had bizarrely attempted to make the case that the discovery of a few hundred chemical artillery shells, dating back to the Iran-Iraq war decades ago, somehow justified America’s invasion. Also in discussing Iraq, Santorum argued that “we’re facing the greatest threat this country has ever faced,” one apparently surpassing the Civil War, World War II, and the Cold War. This is a parody of thinking, let alone foreign policy analysis, suggesting that Santorum, not Bob Casey, as many Republicans charged, was the unserious candidate.

Now that the electorate has spoken, have the Republicans learned anything? President Bush sounded conciliatory in the election aftermath, though on Iraq he had previously pledged to maintain his stay-and-die policy for U.S. troops even if he was left with just his wife and dog in his corner. Bush’s rhetoric suggested that he was more likely to endorse further domestic concessions – more wasteful subsidies for alternative energy and increased federalization of education, for instance – than acknowledge reality in Iraq. Bush’s quick defenestration of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, however, indicates that even the president understands that politics as usual won’t work. The president said that a "fresh perspective" on Iraq was needed. Whether he will actually change strategy, as in begin to withdraw, as opposed to tactics, is not yet obvious.

Other Republicans clearly have gotten the message. A number of GOP candidates began edging away from Bush on Iraq during the campaign. For instance, Ohio’s Rep. Deborah Price said that “What’s happening in Iraq is not a direct reflection on me” and opined that her support for the invasion authorization “doesn’t mean I’m always happy with what I see.” Republican New Jersey Senate hopeful Tom Kean and Rep. Anne Northrup (R-Ky.) both called for Rumsfeld’s resignation. Other candidates, such as Florida Governor-elect Charlie Crist, voiced no criticism of the president but avoided ever joining him on the same platform.

This general strategy was of only limited utility: for instance, Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) triumphed while Kean, Northrup, and Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.) did not. (The latter actually had opposed going to war with Iraq from the start, but angry voters were in no mood to pay attention to such fine distinctions.) The trickle of GOP defections may soon become a deluge.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), declared after her victory that the administration’s Iraq policy “has to change.” Moreover, “that message should have been conveyed by the administration much sooner.” The redoubtable Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said that it is time to “start moving America out of Iraq.”

Equally important is the attitude of GOP apparatchiks. Most are practical rather than ideological, committed to winning above all else. They have generally supported Bush’s pro-war policies because he helped them win, not because activists believed in his neocon-inspired joyride. The reality of defeat is likely to spark a stampede away from the administration. One unnamed GOP analyst told the Washington Post, “For way too long, we believed our own talking points. We actually believed that things were getting better.” No longer.

Neocon intellectuals might still be able to maintain their grip on the levers of power within the administration, though Robert Gates, Rumsfeld’s designated successor, is viewed more as a traditional hawk with realist sensibilities. But the administration is likely to lose a significant chunk of its political and popular support. That will reduce the administration’s running room in Iraq; perhaps more important, the president will be less able to launch other foolish foreign adventures, such as an attack on Iran.

Bush still might hold firm on Iraq, refusing to abandon the administration’s misguided crusade. Indeed, until now retreat was the last thing on the administration’s mind. Observed Vice President Dick Cheney before the vote, “You cannot make national security policy on the basis of that. It may not be popular with the public. It doesn’t matter, in the sense that we have to continue the mission.” If Bush chooses to do so, it will be hard to stop him: the executive branch has seized primacy in foreign affairs, despite the Constitution’s grant of concurrent authority to Congress.

Moreover, there is no easy way for even a united Democratic Party on Capitol Hill to force Bush to give way. Use of the budget power to cut off funding is awkward and risks allowing the executive to charge that Congress is hurting troops in the field. Even more so, disaffected Republicans will be loath to challenge the president.

What the Democrats can do is investigate administration deceptions and blunders, expose the lack of realistic planning, and challenge DOD and White House officials to offer a justification for America’s continued presence. In particular, the incoming Democratic Congress needs to demand that the administration offer a program that rooted in reality rather than fantasy.

Moreover, the Democrats must develop an alternative foreign policy vision, one that does not rely on the so-called incompetence dodge – that the only thing wrong with the Republican War Party is that its members are inept. Iraq is a disaster because social engineering is even less workable at a global than at a national level. After developing a more noninterventionist critique, Democrats need to use their newfound access to the media and the policy world by making the case that a measured but full withdrawal is the only rational policy alternative in Iraq today.

Equally important, the Democrats need to cooperate with Republicans who realize that the War Party has wrecked their chance to build an enduring majority. Just as there are interventionist Democrats, who like war so long as they wage it, there always have been Republicans who realized that war is always a last resort, the ultimate big government program. And now there are many GOP candidates, workers, and supporters who realize that promiscuous warmongering, especially a war of choice based on deceptive arguments and crackpot fantasies, is a political loser. Within the GOP, ideological noninterventionists must work with political activists to isolate, and if possible expel, the ideological interventionists.

Ultimately, breaking the neoconservative grip on the levers of power will require a bipartisan (or multi/transpartisan) effort. This election should embolden the Democrats to directly confront the War Party. Equally important, it should encourage Republicans to abandon a political leadership that led its candidates, like lemmings, over the cliff.

Despite the election, more Americans and Iraqis are destined to die in the administration’s foolish, unnecessary war. But Nov. 7 is the beginning of the end for the warmongers. The War Party has run aground. Now it’s critical to ensure that the end comes sooner rather than later, and that never again does a small cabal of ideological extremists grab control America’s national security apparatus to inaugurate a disastrous war of choice.