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 Sen. 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 Sen. 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.
Jonah Goldberg is author of the new book “The Tyranny of Cliches.”