The War Party

Sometimes, you get things wrong. In January, just as the long march to primary season was getting under way, I wrote a piece for the Atlantic in which I argued that in spite of the conservative movement's dreams of a return to small-government purity and the media's fantasy of a revived Rockefeller Republicanism, George W. Bush's mix of social conservatism, "big government" conservatism, and overseas interventionism would continue to define the GOP for some time to come. In particular, I suggested that you could see this dynamic at work in the primary field - none of whose leading contenders hailed from the foreign-policy realist wing of the party, none of whom were associated with Gingrichian government-cutting (including Newt Gingrich, version 2.0), and none of whom, including the pro-choice Rudy, seemed eager to pick a fight with social conservatives.

For this election cycle, at least, my prediction doesn't look so hot.

Four months into the primary season, the Republican candidates are all running way to the right on domestic policy, talking about tax cuts and porkbusting and abandoning the territory that Bush tried to swipe from the Democrats; meanwhile, the man currently leading in the GOP primary polls, Rudy Giuliani, seems to have decided that his path to the nomination requires a frontal assault on the party's social-conservative consensus. The only place where there hasn't been any serious deviation from Bushism is foreign policy, and particularly the war in Iraq, which is the one place where I thought deviations were most likely.

What's going on? This, probably. When asked to name the issue they care most about, 31 percent of Republican voters picked the War in Iraq, another 17 percent picked terrorism, and another 8 percent picked "foreign policy." More potential GOP primary voters picked Iraq, in particular, than picked the economy, health care, education, abortion, and immigration combined. So while in a peacetime primary season, savvy candidates would be paying attention to, say, the fact that the Republican base is more amenable to universal health-care and anti-poverty spending than it used to be, in this primary season there's little to be gained from taking any risks on domestic policy, because the winner is going to be the guy who voters want in charge of the war in Iraq, full stop. Similarly, whereas in a peacetime primary season, Rudy Giuliani might have fumbled onward with his "I hate abortion/I like Sam Alito/I'm pro-choice/a judge could decide either way" eight-step because the alternative was certain defeat, in this primary season his "Iraq should trump abortion" line actually might have a chance of playing in Peoria.
The difficulty, of course, is that a primary battle fought entirely over who's going to kick the most ass in Iraq, with rote invocations of Reagan substituting for policy debate on virtually every other issue, is likely to produce a nominee wildly out-of-step with the concerns of the larger electorate. (It's a very bad sign for the GOP when Frank Rich's analysis of the party's woes is largely correct.) In this context, the frontloaded primary season may be the only thing that can save the Republicans from defeat in '08, since it will give the eventual nominee time to refit his campaign for November - time that it looks like he'll desperately need.