Daniel McCarthy’s cover story on how the Iraq War has become the GOP’s Vietnam is very much worth reading, but I fear that after finishing it I remained unconvinced. Here are three reasons why.
First, I’m unconvinced that Vietnam is the key reason why the Democrats lost their status as the majority party. Rather, I believe it was overwhelmingly domestic policy considerations – and particularly the nexus of race and crime – that overwhelmingly drove the “Silent Majority” into the arms of Richard Nixon, and, subsequently, motivated the Democrats of Macomb County, Michigan, to pull the lever for Ronald Reagan.
That doesn’t mean Vietnam was irrelevant, but in the absence of the currents of domestic social change, I suspect the Vietnam debacle would have looked more like, say, the Korean War, the memory of which did contribute to the Democrats’ losses in 1952 and 1956, but did not lead to a long-term realignment. There is a tendency to attribute those social changes to the disillusion caused by the Vietnam War, but I suspect this is also a mistake – the Generation of ’68 was a global phenomenon.
Second, there’s an asymmetry between the two cases in that the GOP has, certainly since 1980 and arguably since 1972, consistently been perceived as the more hawkish of the two parties. Whereas there was a distinctive “left-Jeffersonian” wing of the Democratic Party from the post-Watergate Congress onward, a comparable “right-Jeffersonian” wing does not really exist within the GOP, apart from Ron Paul. (It remains to be seen what his son is aiming at; I suspect it is something rather different.) The predominant GOP response to the foreign policy disasters of the Bush Administration has been to double down.
Logically, you would think this would be disastrous politics, but I’m not convinced that it is. Losing wars may make people more risk-averse, but it more-reliably makes them more nationalistic. The GOP brand is deeply nationalist, and so in foreign policy it is more logical for the GOP to position itself as the party more certain to “keep Americans safe” or to advance American power, than to position itself as the party more likely to “keep America out of war.” Moreover, the perverse consequence of the GOP’s doubling down is that the entire foreign policy conversation has been pulled in a decidedly aggressive direction, which in turn validates the GOP’s existing brand.
Finally, the data doesn’t support Daniel McCarthy’s conclusions. Take a look at the polling data that Daniel Larison presents in this post. According to Gallup, while every age cohort thinks the Iraq War was a mistake, the most supportive cohort is 18-29 year olds. The second most supportive is 30-49 year olds. The least supportive are the over-65 contingent. The data is similar with respect to Afghanistan (30-49 year olds are somewhat more supportive than 18-29 year olds of that conflict), and also with respect to Vietnam, a war those two youngest cohorts cannot remember. Indeed, a majority of 18-29 year olds think the Vietnam War was not a mistake, while the overwhelming majority of the over-65 cohort, who actually remember that war, do consider it to have been a mistake.
But which cohort is trending toward the GOP, and which is trending away?
The data is a little old (June 2012), but what it shows is that the age cohort most opposed (in retrospect) to the interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and (way back when) Vietnam is the only cohort that has trended strongly towards the GOP since 2008, while the cohort that has moved most strongly away from the GOP – the Millennials – is also the cohort that is the least averse to foreign intervention, as represented by their attitudes towards America’s three largest and longest wars of recent memory.
Data like that require interpretation, of course. My inclination is to say that this younger contingent is more likely than the older generation to have internalized the assumptions of permanent war, because these were part of the general atmosphere in which they came of age. That doesn’t mean that an ultra-hawkish pitch is the way to their hearts, but it makes it harder to claim that such a pitch is a sure way of losing their votes.
Even if my interpretation is wrong, the data still point away from McCarthy’s conclusions. If the cohort that claims the largest share of support for the Iraq War is also the least-supportive of the GOP, and the cohort that claims the smallest share of support is the most-supportive, then it’s hard to argue that foreign policy generally, and attitudes towards the Iraq War specifically, are what is driving the collapse of the GOP brand among the young, and among the country at large.
A well-deserved reputation for incompetence is hardly an electoral asset, of course. So I would like to believe that Daniel McCarthy is right, because it suggests that what would be good for the country would also be good politics. But I’m not convinced that exorcizing a reputation for “resentment, recession, and insecurity” requires repudiating the Bush Administration’s disastrous foreign policy.
After all, the last Republican candidate to do a halfway decent job of making over the GOP’s reputation in an upbeat and forward-looking direction was . . . George W. Bush.