Back in January 2007, the congressional Republicans reached the conclusion that lockstep support for the wildly unpopular president and his wildly unpopular war was the right way to respond to the Democrats’ big win in 2006. I think some folks are going to be standing around in January 2009 wondering why they thought that was a good idea.
Both observe correctly that the antiwar Republicans, what few of them there were, suffered significant attrition during the midterms on account of the general anti-GOP backlash (including in Indiana, of all places). Gilchrest has since succumbed to a primary challenge in Maryland, supposedly because his moderate Republicanism was not representative of his district but largely because of his post-2006 dissent on the “surge” and other war-related votes. In fact, there is a relationship between the broader disappearance of moderate Republicans and the losses of antiwar Republicans. Half of the original six antiwar House Republicans were moderates, and Chafee was obviously on the Republican left. These moderates are getting shot by both sides, to use Dan’s phrase, on account of things other than the war, or more precisely they cannot necessarily rely on rallying core Republican voters on issues unrelated to the war. (Hostettler’s loss was an almost freak case that belonged to the implosion of the Indiana GOP because of disaffection with the state as well as the national party–indeed, he is the only conservative antiwar Republican of the original six members to have lost his seat.) Meanwhile, even though they may be more competitive in their districts and states as moderate Republicans (no one seriously believes Laffey could have won in Rhode Island), the very quality that makes them competitive can also make them redundant in a year when they are identified with an unpopular party label (despite the best efforts of incumbents like Chafee to eschew the Republican name). In these districts and states, why settle for the “me-too” Republican who happens to be antiwar, when you can have a Democrat?
Ironically and depressingly, the defeat of antiwar Republicans together with the rest of the party, even though the party’s unpopularity is a result of support for the war, provides perverse justification for the GOP tying itself to the war even more closely. If opposition to the war from the beginning is not enough to shield you from the antiwar backlash, which the defeat of Leach, Hostettler and Chafee would indicate, there is litte incentive for most House members in switching positions later, suffering the inevitable credibility attacks and providing ammunition to Democratic challengers who will argue that antiwar voters might as well vote for them rather than back the Johnny Come Lately Republican. Plus, one of the peverse consequences of gerrymandering is that it ensures that the broad majority of the caucus would actually risk losing re-election by adopting what is the nationally more popular position. It remains to be seen whether Walter Jones will survive his primary challenge, and while I think his chances are much better than Gilchrest’s, his case is a good test of whether Republicans can embrace a genuinely antiwar position and stay in office. Having been gerrymandered into “safe” districts, most House Republicans are also prisoners to a policy endorsed by the Republican administration, especially when that administration remains unbelievably popular among rank and file Republicans. As Jim’s article on the subject reported, even Inglis down in South Carolina made some anti-”surge” noises and was dubbed part of the “White Flag Republicans” by the buffoonish Hugh Hewitt. Inglis suddenly found himself having to worry about a primary challenge. Inglis now faces a challenge for the June 10 election from Charles Jeter, a former EPA Administrator during the Reagan years. Though Jeter is mainly emphasising immigration and the economy so far, he takes an effectively much stronger pro-war position despite calling the war a “mistake,” and his primary challenge would not be possible against such a solid incumbent (and there would be no encouragement for it) were it not for Inglis’ departures from party orthodoxy on the “surge.”
No doubt the GOP’s decision after the midterms to tie themselves to the continuation of the Iraq war was terrible policy and politically foolish for the long-term chances of regaining the majority, and part of this was willful blindness on the part of the party leadership and the activists that the war had nothing to do with the ’06 defeat (it was earmarks and corruption, don’t you know?), but the political calculation makes a certain amount of sense. As they see it, there is nothing to be gained politically and much to be lost by abandoning a war that, despite a significant degree of bipartisan support, was overwhelmingly a Republican war. One also shouldn’t underestimate the degree to which a lot of Republicans have internalised the idea that the war in Iraq is vital and necessary, such that they take it as a point of pride that they are remaining supportive of it despite its unpopularity and the political damage it is doing to the GOP (if they can acknowledge the latter). The success of McCain in winning antiwar votes in the primaries, and the successful (and dishonest) portrayal of Romney’s wait-and-see attitude towards the “surge” as defeatism before the Florida vote both serve as signs to doubting Republicans that there is no upside for them in turning against the war. For a lot of them, the greater political risk is to take the overwhelmingly popular position, because antiwar sentiment is concentrated in all those parts of the country that they don’t represent. What this means, though, is that over the long term the GOP will be limited to their safe districts and to extremely “red” states.