Bush has not stepped back from the decisions he has made on Iraq. At the core of Bush’s Iraq dilemma is the fact, still denied at the White House, that the president has lost his political base on the overriding issue of the war. In contact mainly with fawning campaign contributors, Bush may not appreciate the steady decline in support of his war policy that I have seen deepening among Republicans in the past year.

This undercurrent of GOP protest roared to the surface with the party’s election debacle Nov. 7. At the Republican grass roots, there is no question that Iraq lost the election. State officials and party leaders who are no specialists on foreign policy tell me the Republican Party simply cannot go into the 2008 campaign with troops still fighting in Iraq. ~Robert Novak

2008 will include, if it comes to that, the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war’s beginning (God forbid).  If the relationship of the two Bush terms to Iraq is at all similar to that of Kennedy-Johnson with Vietnam, 2008 functions roughly as the equivalent for Republicans what 1968 was for Democrats, the year of the great crack-up over the war.  Iraq hurt the GOP in 2006 as a drag on the party’s popularity and its ability to compete for independents.  What it incredibly failed to do, so far, is to destroy party unity as it may yet do in two years.  As the post-election gurus never tire of telling us, the GOP turnout machine did not fail to deliver; it simply could not deliver enough to overcome huge losses among non-Republicans. 

What another two years of war do to the party’s cohesion is anyone’s guess, but if Novak’s claims are correct the war stands a good chance of dynamiting the GOP from the inside.  This is not because Republican voters will have had some epiphany about the evils of pre-emption and the lunacy of Mr. Bush’s general foreign policy approach–would that it were so.  It will be because the war failed and will count as a national humiliation in the eyes of people who take such humiliations especially poorly, which may wreck the GOP’s traditional (though increasingly inexplicable) appeal as the pro-military, competent foreign policy party.  For dedicated party loyalists, this failure will be counted as a deviation from the high principles of “moral clarity” to which Republicans will have to return if they hope to continue to hold the White House.  Foreign policy as such will not be the dominant issue in ’08.  Competence and the related ability to secure America and vindicate her cause (whatever it is these people think that cause is) in the world will be central and decisive to who wins the nomination.  

The Iraq failure will cut through the party and divide it into three very unequal parts.  The major schism will be the alienation of the hard-liners, represented in the ’08 field by McCain and Gingrich, who are so much more aggressive on Iraq and foreign policy questions generally that they seem to inhabit their own universe.  They will ironically be perhaps the most disgruntled Republicans after an Iraq defeat, because they maintain the illusion that if their more aggressive, heavy-handed and brutal tactics were employed victory would be the inevitable result.  Call them the Dolchstoss faction.  Incredibly, they will spin the failure in Iraq as an example of what too much diplomacy and consultation cause, and they will tap into the resentment of a core nationalist constituency that will make the primaries very hotly contested.  Expect to hear a lot of talk from the hard-liner candidates who will claim that they are both smarter and “tougher” than Bush was.  They will say, “Bush let us down because he failed to live up to our hype–but we will live up to our own hype!”  Since this involves starting many more wars and ruining the country, we may take them at their word that they will certainly try.  

Among pundits, these candidates will find vocal support from the usual suspect neoconservative organs of opinion.  Frighteningly, this faction seems to command the support of a number of the prominent talk show hosts and a large number of regular conservative columnists.  Whether anyone is willing to put money behind their insanity for yet another election is an open question, but enthusiasm and intellectual firepower (if intellectual is the right word for it) will be available to these sorts. 

The infinitely smaller antiwar and noninterventionist conservative splinter in the coalition will rebel against almost any GOP candidate that does not have some kind of traditional American foreign policy credibility.  As of right now, there are no candidates who would satisfy this splinter, which is irrelevant to most Republicans because they have no interest in such a candidate.  This splinter will make some noise and theoretically ought to be in the strongest position (since their arguments pre-war have been more or less vindicated), but it has no constituency in the party and especially none among primary voters.  This is a shame, but that is what appears to be the political reality.  In the event that a truly dreadful Democratic nominee appears on the scene (Clinton or Biden), these people might even convince themselves to bite the bullet and vote GOP in spite of their strong opposition to what the party now represents in the knowledge that a Clinton or Biden administration would be horrific on foreign policy. (For those who doubt that Biden would be a nightmare, simply consider his dangerous recent remarks about Russia.) 

The remaining rump of the establishment-cum-realists will find itself backing some rather dull consensus candidate in an attempt to chart a dissatisfying middle course on Iraq and a general foreign policy approach that will emphasise international cooperation and opening negotiations with unsavoury regimes who are deemed off-limits by the hard-liners.  Who will be that dull middle-ground candidate is not yet clear.  The field is heavy with loopy idealists, raving loons and egomaniacs, with perhaps only a Duncan Hunter or Tommy Thompson representing a more conventional establishment view.  This dull candidate may be enough to hold off a strong challenge from the Dolchstoss crowd in the primaries.  It is not clear that such a candidate can retain the loyalty of the neocons and hard-liners in the general election.   

Consider their contempt for the Baker Commission and realism in general as a foretaste of what is to come in the primaries.  If these people cannot get their way inside the GOP, they might even openly support a Democratic nominee if they determined that said nominee was sufficiently velociraptorian for their tastes.  If they will not go that far, they will be grudging in their support for any realist candidate and will sap enthusiasm from the campaign.  There will almost certainly not be 1968-style fights in the streets of the Twin Cities.  But you can expect the infighting to be especially brutal and you will see the knives brought out, especially by the very people who will cry about how they, with their glorious vision for U.S. leadership, have been stabbed in the back by cowards and weaklings.  2006 was the people’s reckoning with the GOP.  2008 will be their reckoning with themselves, and that is a recipe for implosion.