Home/Daniel Larison/How Can a Republican Be Losing This Election? Just Look at How the GOP Responded to 2006 and 2008

How Can a Republican Be Losing This Election? Just Look at How the GOP Responded to 2006 and 2008

Rod Dreher comments on the prospect of a “civil war” in the GOP following a Romney defeat:

I agree with David, of course, that there ought to be some very serious reckoning within the party if the Republicans lose the presidency this year. But I thought that in 2008, in the wake of the Bush presidency and the McCain defeat. Nothing happened. Of course, this time the economy is still in the toilet, and Obama is the incumbent. How does a Republican lose in this environment? If the GOP standard bearer does lose, there should be Robespierre-like recriminations.

To answer the last question first, a Republican can lose in this environment in large part because of the failure to make very many changes after the drubbings of 2006 and 2008. Because the Bush legacy is still dragging down the Republican Party’s reputation, and because Republicans have done such an awful job of acknowledging and understanding the consequences of that legacy, any Republican nominee would have difficulty unseating the incumbent this year. George W. Bush was the Carter of the modern Republican Party, and most Republicans still can’t grasp that this is how he is perceived by people outside their camp. On top of all that, the Republicans put forward a nominee who embodies much of what is wrong with the GOP and the movement conservative right. The nominee also appears to have poor political skills and judgment.

Another reason that a Republican can lose in this environment is that the automatic response among many movement conservatives to losses in 2006 and 2008 was not to identify any of the real sources for the defeat, but to make believe that the only thing that the Bush-era GOP did wrong was to indulge in a little too much wasteful spending. Of course, they did indulge in far too much wasteful spending, and unified Republican government expanded the welfare state more than any period since the creation of the Great Society. Those were serious policy mistakes, but they weren’t the primary reasons that Republicans lost. Republicans fared so poorly in those elections for several reasons, but chief among them was the Iraq war and the incompetent management of it.

The war was originally a bipartisan debacle, but by 2006 Republicans had closely identified themselves with the war and with Bush. Even after 2006, Republicans continued to tie themselves even closer to the war, and they made the “surge” into a litmus test for all members of Congress and presidential candidates. As if to emphasize how oblivious they were to the overwhelming unpopularity of the war, Republicans then nominated the most hawkish candidate available to run against the only leading Democratic candidate to have opposed the war before it began. The financial crisis and recession were ultimately more important factors in the final outcome of 2008, but the 2008 match-up would not have been possible without the Iraq war and Republicans’ foolish determination to defend a bad cause to the very end.

Since that defeat, the lesson Republicans drew was not that they should acknowledge how damaging and unnecessary the Iraq war had been or try to force themselves to rethink their assumptions about foreign policy. Indeed, there has been very little evidence among most Republicans of different thinking on foreign policy since 2008 on any issue. One of the results of this is that most Americans don’t trust Republicans with conducting foreign policy, and they are right not to trust them. Assuming that Romney loses, one of the many things Republicans will need to do is to work on winning back that trust by cultivating a foreign policy of prudence and restraint.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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