Do the Republican Need Iraq?

Ezra gets provocative:

I genuinely hope Joe Klein is right and Iraq's improvements are durable. And contrary to Joe's implication, I don't think, politically, this is something for Democrats to fear. The better Iraq is doing, the less of an issue it will be in the election. The less of an issue it is in the election, the more issues like the health care crisis, the mortgage meltdown, inequality, and global warming will come to the fore. Indeed, the less Iraq dominates the agenda, the more alternative foreign policy visions can emerge, and be tested, and become the new context for the discussion All that is good for the Left.

Indeed, I occasionally believe that Republicans know that once American troops leave Iraq, the country's need for the Republican Party, at least temporarily, will cease. The Iraq War has increasingly come to define the Republican party. They've sacrificed almot everything else for it, from fiscal discipline to social conservatism (see the Giuliani campaign). So long as troops remain in Iraq, the Republicans can at least argue that they need to finish the job they've begun, and that the Democrats lack sufficient commitment to victory. End it, and you end their relevance, at least until they can reinvent themselves as the party of closed borders. My sense is that, consciously or unconsciously, some of the GOP knows this, and it underpins their unwillingness to even begin drawing the conflict to a close. At this point, the end of the war would be existentially unmooring for the Party.

I think this is right on a philosophical level: Shared support for the war papers over all sorts of messy internal divisions within American conservatism; it isn't the unifying force that the Cold War was, since there are more right-wingers off the reservation on Iraq than there were on the Red Menace, but it's close. But politically, the Republicans need Iraq like they need a hole in the head. The Cold War was a unifying force for the Right and a political winner; the Iraq War is a unifying force that prevents the party for engaging with swing voters on foreign policy, which is supposed to be the party's bread and butter, let alone on domestic issues. It's true that if Iraq recedes in '08, issues like health care and the environment that increasingly favor the Democrats will come to the fore, but that's still better for the GOP than having those domestic issues floating around plus a disastrous occupation to contend with, which is the combination that gave us the '06 sweep. Yes, the end of the war would be existentially unmooring for the Republicans, but when your party's in serious trouble, sometimes an unmooring is exactly what you need.