One of my co-bloggers asked me a very interesting question: Why does the Republican Party frequently work so hard to stamp out candidates who agree with a majority of Americans on the Iraq war? This question is even more relevant now that Chuck Hagel, the leading Republican war critic in the Senate, has announced his retirement -- especially in light of reports that GOP bigshots helped Hagel's pro-war primary challenger behind the scenes. As I recently observed in The American Conservative, Walter Jones and other antiwar Republicans face similar pressure from the party.
Hagel's decision not to run again may actually put the Nebraska Senate seat in play if Bob Kerrey decides to run as the Democratic candidate. Jon Bruning would have a hard time beating Kerrey, though Agriculture Secretary -- and former Governor -- Mike Johanns could make it a dogfight. Kerrey is arguably more hawkish on Iraq than Hagel, which raises a second question: Since the Democrats have had success running pro-war and antiwar candidates depending on the local political climate, why can't the Republicans do something similar?
There are probably a lot of reasons for this. For one, hawks now play a bigger role in the GOP coalition than they did in the 1990s, when noninterventionist conservatives were somewhat more influential. Secondly, Republicans place a high premium on party loyalty, making them more likely to support policies -- especially wars -- pursued by GOP presidents. But I think a major reason is simple politics.
The reality is that a majority of Republicans still favors staying the course in Iraq, whatever that actually means. This view is even more pronounced among self-described conservatives. GOP politicians who deviate from the pro-war position are going against the grain of the party's base. Meanwhile, Democrats and antiwar independents seem to have decided that an individual politician's position on the war is less important than whether they belong to the pro- or antiwar party (leaving aside for the moment whether the Democrats can really be described as an antiwar party). So Republicans who break ranks on the war face problems with the base but don't seem to win many friends among swing voters.
Admittedly, the sample size is very small but it isn't obvious that being an antiwar Republican is yet an electoral asset. Lincoln Chafee was the only Republican in the Senate to vote against the war and was the chamber's most liberal GOP member. But when Rhode Island voters wanted to punish someone for the war and other Bush policies, they turned Chafee out of office anyway. U.S. Reps. Jim Leach of Iowa and John Hostettler of Indiana both went down to defeat in 2006 despite voting against the war -- Hostettler even ran an ad touting his antiwar vote and lost to a pro-war Democratic challenger (though he did win reelection twice since voting against the war.)
Most of the Republicans turning against the war in the Senate hail from the moderate to liberal wing of the party. They rely more heavily on Democrats and swing voters for their support, and thus feel pressured to take an "independent" stand. But possible primary troubles keep them from getting too independent. Of the GOP Iraq critics in the Senate, only Hagel, Oregon's Gordon Smith, and recently Olympia Snowe will actually vote for antiwar legislation. So far Richard Lugar, John Warner, and Susan Collins won't.
In the House, the antiwar Republicans are about evenly divided between dissident conservatives and Rockefellerite liberals. But only four -- Jones, Ron Paul, John Duncan, and Wayne Gilchrest -- consistently vote for antiwar legislation. And even they divide. Paul and Duncan are willing to vote to defund the war, but they don't favor congressional timelines for withdrawal. Jones and Gilchrest support timelines but won't vote to defund the war. (Duncan, by the way, seems to be an exception to the rule that antiwar Republicans get into political trouble.)
That doesn't necessarily mean that there are no real divisions among Republicans on Iraq. While David Freddoso may be overstating the case to call Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich "war doubters, " he is nevertheless on to something. In the current field, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain are unambiguously committed to the current Iraq strategy while Fred Thompson certainly seems to be leaning in that direction. But Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Sam Brownback, to name three, are keeping their options open without breaking openly with the president. Even Tom Tancredo, who has made casual comments about bombing Mecca, has expressed doubts about the surge and an open-ended occupation.
None of these quibbles from the non-Paul candidates goes very far, and it is worth noting that only one of the top-tier candidates seems less than sold on the present strategy. But it does suggest that public opinion could eventually play a bigger role in creative GOP candidates' thinking about the war.