On Iraq, the GOP Is Out of Touch with Its Own Voters

The pro-war positions of Republican primary candidates are wildly unrepresentative of the intra-right disagreements about Iraq.



In the clip above, two Republican members of Congress tell Grover Norquist that all their colleagues -- 100 percent -- believe in private that the Iraq War was a mistake. A November 2011 CNN poll found that 68 percent of Americans oppose the war. A CBS News poll from the same month found that 49 percent of Republicans believe the Iraq War was "not worth it" compared to 41 percent who said the war was worth it. And as President Obama oversees a substantial pullout from the country, 71 percent of Americans say bringing our troops home is the right decision.

Despite all that, the Republican Party is attacking President Obama over his withdrawal of troops. And the Republican primary race is full of candidates who supported the war: Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum all favored waging it. Jon Huntsman takes no position -- when Michael Brendan Dougherty profiled him for The American Conservative, he searched in vain for contemporaneous accounts of Huntsman's position on the invasion, and when he asked Huntsman about his position the candidate was reluctant to say that he supported or opposed it at the time (he favors the pullout of American troops).

Why is support for the Iraq War still an unofficial litmus test in the GOP?

Among the viable primary candidates only Ron Paul opposed the Iraq War from the beginning as an ill-conceived mistake. Though his position best represents the American public and arguably corresponds most closely to current Republican opinion, however, he is treated as a zany outlier. 

For this reason, the Iraq War hasn't played much of a part in Republican Party debates. There is a chance it could play a much bigger role in the general election. When President Obama debates his Republican opponent on foreign policy, he'll likely be able to cite that candidate's support for a war that a healthy majority of general election voters regard as a mistake. If the nominee is Newt Gingrich, he'll further be able to cite the numerous mistaken positions taken as the war unfolded. 

More importantly, the dearth of Iraq War opponents in the GOP field in anything approaching their proportions in the rank-and-file -- and the concerted decision of the GOP establishment, Fox News, and National Review to ignore or dismiss rather than engage Ron Paul and Gary Johnson -- is ensuring that a major disagreement about foreign policy on the right is papered over rather than being hashed out. Should Paul advance in the primaries, it will probably mean a major reckoning about foreign policy at an inconvenient time for Republicans. And if Paul loses it'll help explain why the GOP has a difficult time retaining the votes and energy of his supporters in the general election.

Remarking on the current issue of National Review, wherein the magazine goes all out to discredit Newt Gingrich, media critic Jay Rosen writes, "Reality-based Republicans decided not to have the big fight with the other kind of Republicans before this, so." Some weeks from now, it may also be true that, having decided to avoid an intra-right argument about Iraq for all these years, the conservative movement is going to have it at the height of the Republican primary.

That isn't ideal for the right. On the other hand, we have elections so that political elites are forced to ground their behavior in the views and preferences of the people. On foreign policy, Paul is the vehicle for advancing the views of a lot of Republicans who wouldn't get heard otherwise. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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