It’s useful in some ways to think of the Iraq war as the Republicans’ Vietnam. While both wars had bipartisan support at the beginning, Republican leaders wanted to be identified with the Iraq war and took full ownership of it in 2005-06 when even most Democratic hawks were realizing that it had gone horribly wrong. What has been remarkable about Republican reactions to Iraq at the national political and policy level is that the party has never had its “McGovern phase.” Hagel might have conceivably filled the role of an original war supporter leading his party in opposition to it, but he didn’t run and he wouldn’t have won the nomination if he had. If there had been such a phase, the 2008 and 2012 Republican presidential fields would have included more than one or two antiwar candidates, and the antiwar candidates would have won a much larger share of the vote. Indeed, one would expect an Iraq war opponent to have emerged as the winner of at least one of the last two nominating contests. The fact that it is still difficult (but not impossible) to imagine an opponent of the Iraq war winning the Republican nomination in 2016 suggests that the GOP is experiencing something much worse than a “McGovern phase.”
For lack of a better description, we might refer to the GOP’s current predicament as its McCain phase. Like McCain, most Republican politicians and foreign policy professionals still seem to be convinced that the Iraq war was worth fighting, that the “surge” was a brilliant success that redeemed and “won” the war, and that reflexive hawkishness is and should remain a major part of what it means to be Republican. Like McCain, most Republicans apparently still want to position themselves as the more aggressive, more hawkish alternative to whatever Obama does, and they continue to frame foreign policy issues in conventional terms of resolve vs. appeasement, strength vs. decline, and “leadership” vs. retreat. On most issues, McCain isn’t trusted or liked inside his party, but on the issues where he has been most disastrously wrong he still is. One might have thought that McCain’s influence on his party’s foreign policy thinking would have collapsed or at least gone into severe decline after his loss in 2008, but that hasn’t happened. Romney felt compelled to mimic McCain’s belligerence, and except for Rand Paul there are hardly any national Republicans that appear to be interested in rethinking the party’s foreign policy views. It’s possible that a fourth electoral defeat in 2016 would snap Republicans out of this phase, but if that’s the case it is strange the the second and third defeats had so little effect.