The GOP can win in 2008

Richard Cohen:

There are two ways to predict the winner of the 2008 presidential race: Check the polls or read some history. The polls tell you that with George Bush's approval ratings abysmally low, with the war in Iraq becoming increasingly unpopular, with the GOP lacking a dominant candidate, and with the party divided over immigration, social issues and even religion (Mitt Romney's Mormonism), the next president is bound to be a Democrat. History begs to differ.

The history I have in mind is 1972. By the end of that year, 56,844 Americans had been killed in Vietnam, a war that almost no one thought could still be won and which no one could quite figure out how to end. Nevertheless, the winner in that year's presidential election was Richard M. Nixon. He won 49 of 50 states -- and the war, of course, went on.


Now we come to the current race. The war in Iraq is not -- or not yet -- an issue for Republicans. With the exception of Ron Paul, they all more or less support the president. It is among the Democrats that the war is a divisive issue -- John Edwards sniping at Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and Obama sniping at both. Everyone now opposes the war, but the issue is not so much their positions as much as the intensity of their feelings. Anti-war Democrats in key primary and caucus states, particularly New Hampshire and Iowa, will not vote for a lukewarm anti-war candidate. This accounts for why Clinton recently reversed herself and voted to end funding for the war. The one presidential candidate from the Senate who did not was Joseph Biden. He said he opposed the war but saw no choice but to fund the troops.

Precisely right, Joe. But more than right, prescient as well. As if to suggest what an issue this will become, Rudolph Giuliani called Clinton's vote a "significant flip-flop.'' Since then the Republicans have mostly trained their fire on each other. You can bet, though, that if Clinton gets the nomination, this vote will be hung around her neck and the hoariest of cliches will be trotted out: weak on defense. It will have added resonance because Clinton is a woman.

This is where history raises it ugly head. The GOP is adept at painting Democrats as soft on national security. It is equally adept at saying so in the most scurrilous way. And while most Americans would like the war to end, they do not favor a precipitous withdrawal and neither have they forgotten Sept. 11, 2001 -- the entirety of Giuliani's case for the presidency, after all.

I think you can count on the race being framed that way. It has the added benefit of being true. Democrats are weak on defense and their Iraq policy positions are at best incoherent now as they were in 2004. Hillary who has been voting for electability has managed to vote for and against the war alienating both sides. She will not be trusted by either.


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