Assessing costs.

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Republican Blindness on Iraq

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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How should presidential candidates react when their party is far from the mainstream on an issue? 

Take the Iraq War. Steven Benen at MSNBC points to polling showing Republicans overwhelmingly still believe the 2003 invasion was “the right thing for the United States to do.” Democrats and independents are solidly on the side of “wrong thing.” Benen understates the problem:

Conservative voters, for reasons that don’t seem to make any sense at all, may realize Iraq had no WMD; the war caused thousands of American casualties ... the fiasco destabilized the entire region; and we’re still trying to build back American stature and credibility on the global stage, but this doesn’t persuade them.

But conservatives may not be aware of that information. A poll earlier this year found that half of Republicans and half of Fox News watchers believed the U.S. found an active weapons program in Iraq. An earlier poll showed that 63 percent of Republicans believed in those non-existent weapons.

We don’t have polls on Benen’s other claims, but most conservatives may not believe them, either. “Destabilized the entire region”? Some may believe that Saddam Hussein was already allied with al-Qaeda, or that the troop surge in 2007 ended all strife in the region and that things went  to hell once Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, or both.

After all, that’s what leading Republican politicians have been saying for a decade. So why shouldn’t rank-and-file Republican voters believe it?

Shifting voters’ views of the war would require a fair amount of education. That’s not  a winning game for individual candidates -- most of whom entered national politics long after the war began, but have no desire to pick fights with a foreign policy establishment that is still well-regarded within the party.

A far better bet is to hope the debate shifts to bad news from Iraq, Syria, Libya or elsewhere during Obama's time in office (regardless of whether the chain of events eventually leads back to 2003). And that's what’s likely to happen. The media probably won't continue its focus on the 2002-2003 decision -- nor will Hillary Clinton want to dwell on it in the general election.

It remains weird that Republicans haven’t abandoned the rhetoric, the thinking or the people behind such a disastrous policy. The obvious parallel: the 1970s Democrats who went through the painful process of evicting almost everyone involved in Vietnam.

For Republicans, however, it isn't clear the short-term costs of dealing with Bush-era failures would have any electoral payoff. My guess? Republicans paid in the 2006 and 2008 elections and, at this point, won't suffer further losses no matter how far they are from median public opinion about Iraq. Unless, that is, retaining the people and ideas who led them into the Iraq War produces further policy fiascoes next time they win the White House -- which is entirely possible, unfortunately.

  1. My guess is that the difference is question wording, not better informed Republicans over time.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net