Ross is right that the war in Iraq is a political albatross for the GOP. The damage from 2006 to public support for the war has been done, and much of it is not going to be undone. The middle 20% of Americans has shifted against the war. 54% said as of two weeks ago that winning is not possible, which is roughly the same as in April. Those are the “good” results on support the war from this year in that poll. Security in many parts of Iraq has improved, at least temporarily, and this has actually been reported with increasing frequency for a good two months now. The change in public opinion has been minimal. This 54-55% seems locked in to the assumption that the war cannot be won in any meaningful sense, and while the numbers on the other side fluctuate they remain trapped at 40-42% or below. I point all of this out to say simply that whether the war begins to “go well” or “get worse,” the verdict on what U.S. policy should be has been handed down long ago: get most, if not all, of our people out.
The political class has either decided to ignore this verdict or part of it has been unable to change policy. The deadlock over war policy between Congress and the White House is probably frustrating the public (and this frustration will increase with another Bush veto of an Iraq-related bill), which will persuade enough of them to risk unified government one way or the other. Given the majority’s views on the war and the views of most GOP voters and candidates, we can guess that the unified government they select will not be a Republican one. That bodes ill for talk of a Republican “comeback” in Congress and for the hopes of the ’08 nominee.
One of the crucial problems with the internal debate within the GOP on Iraq, to the extent that there is now a debate, is that a large majority of Republicans are the same people who want to “remain until the country [Iraq] is stable,” as this 11/1-11/5 NBC poll put it. They are therefore likely to nominate a candidate who thinks the same, or who at least mouths the appropriate phrases. But that is decidedly not what most Americans want. Most Americans (55%) want “most troops” out of Iraq by 2009, so you can bet that they are unlikely to turn around and elect a President who cannot or will not promise large-scale withdrawal within the first two years or so. They are even less likely to back a Republican who continues to make a long-term commitment of a large number of soldiers to Iraq when there is relatively less violence. So long as the mayhem was nightmarishly frequent, it could be used to instill fear of worse things that might happen when we left (which, I would add, probably will happen), but as it subsides, at least in some areas for the next little while, the fear of post-withdrawal disaster recedes and it is more difficult to paint apocalyptic scenarios that will sway the public.
What happens in Iraq in the next year will be less important to voters than the reality that our soldiers are still in Iraq in large numbers and that at least one of the major parties is committed to keeping them there for God knows how long. The other party may at least make gestures towards withdrawal, and that may be all that is needed.
P.S. Which party the public trusts more is also going to be a major factor next year. In the 10/29-11/1 Post poll, 50% trusted the Democrats more on handling Iraq, while only 34% trusted the GOP. That’s obviously a huge gap, and it represents the loss of trust that the Republicans have suffered on their signature foreign policy position. The point is that even with dramatic improvements in Iraq over the next year (and I am skeptical that these will materialise), the public isn’t going to trust the GOP to be a good steward of U.S. foreign policy. It is probably not the best way to rebuild that trust by nominating either an extremely bellicose candidate who seems intent on starting new conflicts (Giuliani) or one closely identified personally with the war (McCain). Also, when 63% are saying that the war wasn’t worth it, that represents a huge obstacle to a party that overwhelmingly still believes that it was.
P.P.S. Remarkably, public opinion on the effectiveness of the “surge” seems to be nothing like the growing elite consensus that it has made some gains, i.e., which has to be very narrowly defined as having “made things better” than they were at the start of the year. In a 10/12-10/16 CBS poll 54% thought that the “surge” had either had no impact or had made things worse, while only 33% believed that it had made things better. In short, people who think there is no possibility of winning aren’t buying the pro-“surge” rhetoric (which, as I noted at the time, was overselling the gains of the “surge” early on and talking it up far too soon in the year), or at least they weren’t as of a month ago.