Karl Rove, President Bush's political lieutenant, told a closed-door meeting of 2008 Republican House candidates and their aides Tuesday that it was less the war in Iraq than corruption in Congress that caused their party's defeat in the 2006 elections.
Rove's clear advice to the candidates is to distance themselves from the culture of Washington. Specifically, Republican candidates are urged to make clear they have no connection with disgraced congressmen such as Duke Cunningham and Mark Foley.
In effect, Rove was rebutting the complaint inside the party that George W. Bush is responsible for Republican miseries by invading Iraq.
Obviously I find this rebuttal less-than-convincing. (How many people, I wonder, have even heard of Duke Cunningham?) But while Rove is wrong, he isn't all wrong. The important thing to recognize is that all of the GOP's problems in '06 - Iraq, Katrina, and scandals in DC - reinforced one another, fitting easily into a single overarching narrative of misgovernment, incompetence, fecklessness and corruption. Or put another way, the Republican Party found itself on the ropes from '05 onward because of Iraq (and the rising appeal of a a new-model populism), and first the Katrina response and then the various Beltway scandals, from Abramoff to Foley, were the body blows that kept them there.
Going forward, though, the notion that Congressional Republicans need to mainly worry about distancing themselves from Capitol Hill corruption, rather than the Bush Administration's Iraq policy, is at best unpersuasive, at worst absurd. Sure, the lingering memory of scandal will probably play some role in the '08 race, but voters' memories are short, particularly once a party loses power. (The indictment of Dan Rostenkowski wasn't a big issue in the '96 and '98 elections, for instance.) At the very least, Foley and Abramoff and Cunningham won't be in the public's face in '08 the way they were in the midterms. Whereas Iraq will be.