You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Can Republicans Win On Iraq?


Matthew Yglesias is puzzled at the GOP's confidence over Iraq:

The GOP, it seems, is not only convinced that we're "winning" in Iraq (though they can't define what this means) but they're sure they've found a winning issue in the war. Their confidence is a little hard to understand.

Are the Republicans politically suicidal? I don't think so. The public can oppose you on a specific policy question but still favor you on the issue in general. Richard Nixon was fighting an unpopular war in 1972, but he still crushed George McGovern on foreign policy. Likewise, despite the unpopularity of the Iraq war, John McCain's general hawkishness might still be an asset for him.

A Democracy Corps poll, highlighted by Ed Kilgore, suggests exactly that. When presented with the choice of a generic Democrat or Republican, voters strongly prefer a Democrat. But when asked to choose between John McCain and either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, they side with McCain. Democracy Corps calls this swing group -- generically pro-Democrat, actually pro-McCain -- "wanna-D's." (Yes, it's an annoying phrase.) One factor in the Wanna-D's support for McCain is that just over half of them believe that he'd "mostly bring a different approach than President Bush" on foreign policy. So tying McCain to Bush is important.

But Kilgore identifies what seems to be the crucial factor: 

by a startling 33 percentage points, the "Wanna-Ds" say they worry more that Clinton or Obama will be too reluctant to use military force abroad, than McCain being too willing to use military force abroad. Given the wording here, the question is about as clear an indicator of which party's candidates control the "center" on national security as you are going to find.

So there you have it. Iraq may not be popular, but the general perception (which isnot the same thing as reality) that they're willing to fight the bad guys remains a key positive for the GOP brand. Am I saying the Democrats need to try to mimic Republican positions in order to win? Not at all. A creative approach is needed, and Obama's combination of dovishness on iraq and hawkishness on al Qaeda in Pakistan strikes me as probably the best approach.

But I am saying that the challenge is steep, liberals are far too confident about the political terrain, and Republicans are far from crazy to stick with Bush on Iraq.

--Jonathan Chait