Political Hay

The GOP Raises the Ante

Letting it all ride on the war in Iraq.

By 2.20.07

The President rejected the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and proceeded to increase American troops in that theatre.

Republican senators blocked a vote on the troop surge, and their counterparts in the House exerted impressive party pressure to limit defections on the anti-surge resolution to only 17 members.

Vice President Dick Cheney has noted his difficulty in adhering to Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment ("Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican") in the case of anti-war Senator Chuck Hagel.

Neoconservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt is leading a new advocacy group, the Victory Caucus, to target GOP House defectors on the surge issue. Rep. Ric Keller, R-FL who is both anti-abortion and a beneficiary of the anti-tax Club for Growth, is atop the hit list.

The debate over the immediate and short-term (two years) conduct of the war seems to have been settled within the Republican Party. The addition of a 20,000 plus combat troops in Iraq, working in unison with a supposedly re-energized Iraqi military, is the favored response to what has been a less than satisfactory campaign in Mesopotamia.

Discipline within the GOP is truly a sight to behold. Despite predictions of 50, even 60 Republican votes for the Democratic leadership's anti-surge resolution, only a fraction of that number actually voted for it.

The fact that all of these developments, coalescing into rock solid support for the President's war policy, came about after a mid-term electoral defeat for the GOP, is nothing short of remarkable. As Senator Richard Lugar, R-IN, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had observed, apropos the conduct of the war, "There has been an election; Republicans lost the election." It is an indication of the unity of the Republican base and its embrace of the argument that breaking ranks with the President is the equivalent of betraying the troops in the field.

This latter argument was delivered with passion by Rep. Sam Johnson, R.-TX, a former Vietnam prisoner of war. "Debating non-binding resolutions aimed at earning political points only destroys morale, stymies success, and emboldens the enemy," said Johnson during the floor debate.

While the debate within the GOP on the war in Iraq seems to have ended, the ambient political environment appears to be much less settled.

Charlie Cook, one of the leading political analysts in Washington, and editor of the prestigious The Cook Political Report, recently described a new analysis by the Gallup Organization based on its annual aggregation of the results of all national political surveys for the year with special attention to party identification.

The accuracy of the findings are based on interviews with 30,655 adults in 2006, an 0.57-point margin of error -- "about as close as you can get to perfection in the world of polling."

From 2001 through 2005, "party identification balance" in the Gallup polling, before independents are queried, stayed within 2 points of each other. But for 2006, Democrats pulled away, leading Republicans by 3.9 points, with 34.3 percent identifying themselves as Democrats, 30.4 percent as Republicans and 33.9 percent as independents.

"This represents a swing of 5.8 points in just three years, from a GOP lead of 1.9 points to a deficit of 3.9 points. It's not that Democrats grew that much; it's that Republicans dropped, with the independent column picking up much of the slack," argues Cook.

But for Cook, "the real jaw dropper" is the responses of independents when asked which party they lean toward. Here, Democrats jumped from a 1.3 point advantage in 2001 to a 10.2 advantage in 2006: 50.4 percent for Democrats, 40.2 percent for Republicans.

According to Cook, "This 10.2-point advantage is the biggest lead either party has held since Gallup began tracking the leaners in 1991." For the last quarter of 2006 the Democratic advantage actually rose to 14.2 points.

Cook admits that these figures measure the attitudes of adults, not voters. However, he doubts that there is a differential of more than 10 points between adults and voters. He limits his interpretation of this data to the view "that whatever inherent advantages the GOP had in Electoral College math might be gone."

Writing before the actual vote on the anti-surge resolutions in the Senate and House, Cook opined that, absent clear progress by June, "the president will lose many Republican lawmakers who have stuck with him so far."

Maybe. Maybe not. As the recent party-line vote on the surge indicates, the GOP seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Even at this early stage, one would have anticipated more diversity in the GOP ranks on a subject as controversial as a war not going well. But the political will of the President, his supporters in Congress, and the neoconservative and conservative base seems to be countering any such trend within the party.

The GOP has raised the ante and is letting it all ride on the war in Iraq.

The question remains whether such unanimity will be found praiseworthy by the general electorate in 2008. If the trend lines in party identification and the preferences of independents are to be believed, the GOP may have to rely on the fecklessness of its Democratic opponents, as much as on its own internal cohesiveness, to have a chance at victory in two years.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.