Most of Ross Douthat’s account of how the Iraq war created the “Obama era” makes sense, and it echoes what Jim Antle says here and what I have been saying in one form or another for a while. Here is one part of Douthat’s account that deserves further discussion:
But once Bush’s foreign policy credibility collapsed, his domestic political capital collapsed as well: moderates stopped working with him, conservatives rebelled, and the White House’s planned second-term agenda — Social Security reform, tax and health care reform, immigration overhaul — never happened.
There’s no question that anything Bush touched became politically toxic starting in his second term because of his abysmal approval ratings, and those abysmal approval ratings owed a lot to the Iraq debacle and the increasing unpopularity of the war that came with its many failures. That was clearly true by the end of 2005, and it had become undeniable by the end of 2006, but this can obscure the fact that the major pieces of Bush’s second-term domestic agenda were also extremely unpopular in their own right. It’s also easy to forget other episodes in the second term showing how the administration overflowed with incompetence in both foreign and domestic affairs. Bush won re-election as an incumbent president by one of the narrowest margins in U.S. history, and then proceeded to govern as if he had just won a 1972 or 1984-style landslide. He was quickly disabused of the notion that re-election had given him a “mandate” when his proposed Social Security reform died a quiet, unmourned death as it became clear early in 2005 that no one in either party in the Senate was going to support it.
Immigration legislation had been one of Bush’s original top priorities in his first term before 9/11, and was then shelved until late in the second term, by which time Bush was even less popular than the proposed amnesty that members of both parties helped to scuttle for their own reasons. The 2006 defeat helped to “free” movement conservatives from their Bush loyalism, at least on some issues, so the decision to push for immigration legislation in 2007 was very poorly-timed. Then again, it is doubtful that Congress would have passed Bush’s favored legislation if Republicans had retained their majorities. The 2006 defeat created the illusion of an opportunity to pursue an amnesty bill, and Bush rushed towards it only to discover that it was a mirage. The bill turned out to be a worst-of-both-worlds compromise that provoked opposition from left and right, and the backlash successfully killed the effort. Bush famously said that he had won political capital in 2004 and intended to spend it, but he learned soon enough that he had not been re-elected to push through an ambitious domestic agenda. The 2004 win had masked just how fragile the Bush-era Republican coalition was, and caused Bush and his party to be extremely complacent and overconfident in their long-term political fortunes. The Iraq war was the main thing that shattered that coalition, but a more broad-based, healthier one might not have collapsed so quickly or completely.
Having said that, I don’t mean to minimize the importance of the Iraq war in wrecking the GOP, since the damage from the war was severe and will last longer than many Americans expect. There is another reason for this that hasn’t been talked about very much. One of the reasons why the political damage from the war was so significant is the same reason why Republican and movement conservative credibility has taken such a hit across the board: the mainstream right’s response to the Iraq war from beginning to end was one of refusal to face up to reality and to the consequences of failure. Faced with an undeniable disaster primarily of their own making, most Republicans spent years denying that anything was wrong, and then to make matters worse most of them spent the next several years after that declaring undeserved victory because of the vastly oversold “surge.” Republican hawks have been the loudest, most consistent cheerleaders for the “surge.” Hawks even managed to repeat some of the errors of the pre-war debate through their “surge” boosterism when they excoriated any Republican who expressed doubts about the “surge.” Worse yet, Republican hawks have pretended that support for the “surge” releases them from any need to rethink the original blunder of supporting the invasion, and most of them remain oblivious to the fact that their foreign policy views are an important part of what is dragging the GOP down. The refusal to face up to reality hasn’t ended, and if the prevailing Republican foreign policy arguments of the last few years are any indication it isn’t going to anytime soon.