Daniel Larison, Talking Sense
Iraq was also the policy that turned the public so sharply against President Bush prior to the 2006 mid-term elections, and those elections were and were correctly seen as a rejection of the war and Mr Bush’s handling of it. The war was the main issue of those elections, and the GOP lost control of Congress because it had identified itself completely with the war and its members in Congress continued to be its most vocal defenders. By national-security conservatives, I mean those members of the conservative movement who have a primary and overriding focus on foreign policy and national-security questions, and who typically take extremely hawkish positions. They were the leading advocates and cheerleaders for the invasion. Most movement conservatives supported the policy, but it was the national-security conservatives who drove the party into the ditch while the others went along for the ride.
What is most striking is how easily they have avoided much censure from their fellow conservatives. This has happened in part because economic conservatives have concocted a self-serving and baseless story that the public turned on the GOP out of disgust with excessive spending, and Republican Party leaders have been happy to take up this message now that they are in the minority. For their part, national-security conservatives have not accepted responsibility for Republican political collapse because they do not believe they were wrong, and they are not being forced to face up to their responsibility by their colleagues, many of whom to this day support the decision to invade Iraq.
Of all the policies the Bush administration pursued, it was the invasion of Iraq that wrecked the Republican Party’s reputation for managerial competence and destroyed its traditional advantage on national security. These were two of the key reasons why many people backed the GOP for decades even when they disliked other elements of the party’s agenda. The GOP had acquired a reputation, fairly or not, for being responsible stewards and in practice Republican administrations had tended to be reluctant warriors. More than anything else, Iraq destroyed all of this in a few years.
I don’t always agree with Larison, but I think he is right on target here. Political commentators tend to have a simple answer for why their party was defeated: they didn’t listen to me! And so David Frum or David Brooks will blame social conservatism or Rush Limbaugh. Fiscal hawks will blame profligate spending. Larison’s comments could be placed in a similar class here, except that they have the benefit of tracking with Bush’s approval ratings.