The Iraq War remains an albatross for President Bush, but it was an albatross in 2004, and that didn’t stop him from winning re-election, despite being a mediocre president and a terrible political candidate. Iraq has already cost Republicans some street-cred on national security issues, but they could reverse that if they’re willing to swallow hard, pass a border fence, and then campaign on Democrats’ perennial and continued resistance to the successfully-tested missile defense system that just might save us from North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il. ~David Freddoso, Brainwash
Mr. Freddoso makes some smart observations, and it is never a bad idea for a political observer to dissent against the increasingly widespread conventional wisdom of a Democratic takeover of the House (the Senate does appear to be a much longer shot, though still not inconceivable). But those things aside, I am not persuaded by Mr. Freddoso’s “great economy” argument, since it is clear that public dissatisfaction with Mr. Bush and the GOP majority does not generally have economic causes in the first place (though I admit it is worsened by high gas prices). Between 2004 and now there was a minor event called Hurricane Katrina, which has shaped, for good or ill, public perceptions of the administration and the Congress. There appears to be more of a general anti-incumbency trend combined with considerable conservative disaffection, which should worry an incumbent party that relies on very active and dedicated conservative supporters for its success. Even if the majority could put together some sort of border fence bill (which they will not realistically do this year anyway), the Republicans’ use of immigration this close to the election will appear (whether it is fair or not that this is the case) as eleventh-hour desperation, which will only underscore how little they have accomplished to date.
The Iraq war wasn’t as much of an albatross in 2004, as poorly as things were going, because the war was still relatively new and we had yet to reach the many, many turning points of 2005 and 2006 that failed to result in any turning. Two years later, the war has become very old and very aggravating to more and more people. At the start of November 2004, 1,125 “coalition” personnel had died in Iraq; in two months’ time, there will have been over twice as many “coalition” casualties, almost all of them American. Maybe that shouldn’t make a difference, but apparently it does.
The public has wearied of the conflict significantly and has changed its mind about the necessity of the war–you did not see half the country saying that Iraq had no connection to the larger “war on terror” in 2004, but you do now. You did not have mass waves of sectarian killings making the problems of Iraq even more insoluble two years ago, but you do now. Two years ago Republicans could still defend the administration’s past incompetence because they believed the administration had a plan for making Iraq policy work; fewer and fewer of them believe any such thing now. Even if they do not oppose administration policies, they are deeply demoralised and dispirited, and the administration’s appalling immigration position has only made things worse.
As for Mr. Freddoso’s observation that conservatives will vote this year, in spite of all this talk of depressed voter turnout, he may be right–but it isn’t at all clear that they will be turning out to vote for the Republican, except where very strong conservatives have beaten White House-backed moderates (as did indeed happen in Michigan). The question remains whether strong conservative nominees can prevail in this electoral climate even with their traditional supporters’ votes; their base may turn out, but no one else may vote for them in an era where “conservative” itself has unfortunately taken on the negative connotations of being an administration loyalist. Paleos such as I may lament that this identification has occurred, but it is hard to separate the two when almost every strong pro-life or social conservative is also a war supporter and administration policy man on everything except immigration. Those who aren’t Bush men, such as Hostettler in Indiana (the 7/17 issue of TAC has a great article by Jim Antle on Hostettler, which is unfortunately not online, so go find a back issue–I think it’s that good), get no credit for being principled conservative opponents of administration immigration and Iraq policies, but appear caught up in a generalised, nationwide repudiation of the Party of Immigration, Imperialism and Insolvency.
I mean, seriously, folks, if a pro-life, anti-immigration, antiwar conservative like Hostettler can’t get any traction in Indiana, where can he get some? He ought to be protected on every side as someone who has been both principled and substantially right on policy from a conservative perspective and as someone who has consistently been distant from the administration when he believed them to be wrong–if this is the age of the independent-thinking man who is not bound by sheer partisanship, John Hostettler should be walking home to victory. That he is not says that the normal rules do not apply in this election and that something is out of joint. But one rule may still apply: that of the six-year itch, where the party that holds the White House for two terms almost always suffers large losses in the sixth year. Even counting on gerrymandering to reduce that risk, there is no reason to think that the GOP is immune to this pattern.
Arguably, Indiana is just a weird, localised anti-GOP backlash because of the poor stewardship of Mitch Daniels (who probably really wishes he’d stayed around as head of OMB!), who has managed to so infuriate people against his party with his decisions on a foreign company’s management of a toll road and, of all things, switching the state to Daylight Savings Time (which adversely affects counties split between Eastern and Central zones) that it is taking down unrelated Congressional candidates, three of whom are slated for likely defeat according to Evans-Novak. Maybe these Indiana Republicans will weather the storm, but the fact that they are even in danger tells me that there is something much more visceral and widespread motivating voters’ choices that has nothing to do with the merits of the individual candidates.
Indiana Republicans are the kind of rock-solid, socially conservative Republicans that Thomas Frank-style liberals at Indiana-Bloomington love to hate (in 2004 they might as well have been asking, “What’s the Matter With Indiana?”). If they are losing the faith, so to speak, their turning out to vote may not be good news for the GOP, since it may only increase the Republicans’ margin of defeat.