Republicans Attack Their Own on Iraq, Digging Political Grave

by Paul Hogarth on July 25, 2007

With George Bush getting more delusional every day, the only way that Congress will end the War in Iraq before January 2009 is if Republicans desert the President and join the Democratic majority behind withdrawal. But as the public urges Congress to bring our troops home, it’s infuriating how slow it has been to get more Republican votes. In the House, only two voted for a deadline in March, and four did in July. Now the small handful of Republicans who have done the right thing are facing primary challenges from their own party because, despite overall public opinion, a majority of registered Republicans still support the War. But this won’t be true a year from now, and if Republicans are trying to “send a message” by attacking each other on this issue, they are sealing their own doom.

Seventy percent of Americans oppose the War and want us to leave Iraq, but what’s interesting is if you break down the numbers by party registration. In a New York Times poll from last week that gave three options (cut off funding, only fund the war with a timetable, or fund it regardless), a mere 28% of all respondents chose the third option. But a slight majority of Republicans did. Likewise, a CBS poll that showed Americans disapproving Bush’s handling of the War by a 23-70 margin had Republicans supporting it 59-33.

On Iraq, Republican voters are out of step with the rest of the population. What’s even worse for their long-term prospects is that independent voters are pretty much in line with registered Democrats on this question. Democrats took back Congress last year because independents – who usually split down the middle in elections – largely supported them. And in California, independent voters are much more closely aligned with Democrats.

But in Republican primaries, only registered Republicans can vote – which explains why most Republican members of Congress who have concluded that the War is a failure and have supported withdrawal are facing a backlash. Even if supporting the War is political suicide in the long run, too many are afraid that they will have to fight off a primary challenge early next year by the base of their own party.

Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland was one of two Republicans to support the first withdrawal legislation to pass Congress. Now he’s facing a challenge from State Senator Andrew Harris, in what one conservative magazine called a primary purge.

The other Republican, Walter Jones of North Carolina, is also getting challenged in the primaries because he opposes the War. His opponent, Onslow County Commissioner Joseph McLaughlin, is banking on the fact that the district has three military bases – including Camp Lejeune (which is home to one-fifth of the Marines.)

Ironically, Jones was the Congressman who in 2003 coined the term “freedom fries,” and was a staunch supporter of the War. Now that he’s realized that it’s a complete folly, the right-wing base is deserting him and is hoping to teach him a lesson. “Disloyalty is something you just can’t tolerate,” said one local Republican county chairman.

Gilchrest and Jones represent districts that Bush won by over 60%, and for activist Republicans their votes were not popular. But as the War continues to be a disaster, don’t expect these same voters to feel that way in a few months when they’re asked to “dump” an incumbent in the primary. Jones’ opponent may hope that the Marines in his district will help make a difference, but now even the military wants us to get out.

Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel is another rare Republican who, besides criticizing the President on the War, has voted to get us out of Iraq. While Hagel hasn’t decided yet whether to run for re-election, Attorney General Jon Bruning is giving him a primary challenge – and has already raised more money. Hagel calls the War “the biggest foreign policy blunder in the history of our country,” and said he’s willing to “accept whatever political price” in his deep red state.

But even in Nebraska, the tide is turning. Hagel told the New York Times that he marched in three Independence Day parades this month, and expected to get booed. “Out of ten thousand people,” he said, “I had one guy scream at me, but he was drunk and it was about immigration.” Hagel also held a town-hall meeting about the War with 300 Nebraskans, and received a standing ovation.

And the numbers are beginning to play out. In a poll commissioned for the state Democratic Party, 51% of Nebraskans favored a timetable withdrawing from Iraq, while only 37% believe we need more time. While it’s a partisan poll, the trend should be obvious – opposing the War may not be popular among Republican voters, but it’s the mainstream view in even the most Republican states.

Unlike Hillary Clinton’s promise to end the War when she becomes President, we simply cannot wait until after the next election to get out of Iraq. We never should have gone in, we need to get out now, and the public strongly supports that position. We can only do it with Republican votes to override a Presidential veto – which means that Republican members of Congress must step up to the plate and join the small number of their colleagues who have already done so.

While it may not be the majority position among Republicans now, it will be by the start of next year. Which means that they must ignore the right-wing threats of a primary challenge within their own party – because the purists who are pushing this purge are only digging their political graves. And it’s only a matter of time.

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