A bull-headed President Bush has made a career out of thumbing his nose at Congressional Democrats that take shots at his Iraq war folly. And now he's doing the same with the few Republicans that have dared break the code of silence and slam his Iraq war policy. When Republican Senator Olympia Snowe said she would back the Senate's non-binding resolution that gently put the brakes on war escalation, Bush lashed out that it wouldn't change anything. And in his State of the Union speech, he again made it clear that he'll do as he pleases when it comes to squandering more billions and wasting more American lives in the quagmire.
But defiance on Iraq is one thing, and domestic political realities are another. Massive public discontent with Bush's hopelessly flawed and failed Iraq war policy cost the Republicans big in the mid-term elections, and with a slew of key Republicans up for reelection in 2008, they are terrified that it cost them even bigger in the 2008 elections, and that includes the loss of the White House.
A no-win, unpopular war always spells trouble for the party in power. The Korean War did for President Harry Truman and the Democrats in 1952, and the Vietnam War did for President Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats in 1968.
In both election years, the Democrats had a decisive edge over the Republicans in Congress, a wide body of public support, and political prestige. But Republican Presidential contenders Eisenhower, and later Nixon, painted Korea and Vietnam as a hopeless muddle that Truman and Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey (Johnson saw the handwriting on the wall and declined to run) made a mess of. Worried Republicans know that history well and they don't want to repeat it with Iraq. There's simply too much at stake.
The balance of power in the House has decisively shifted to the Democrats public backlash against Iraq could decisively shift power to the Democrats in the Senate. That, coupled with a Democrat in the White House could restore the moderate balance to the Supreme Court, ram through an array of legislation on health care, Social Security reform, massive spending of job, and education programs, and a wind down of the war. It could also reduce the Republicans to a second tier party.
That almost happened to the Republicans in the early to mid 1960s. Following his smash victory over Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964, Johnson had big Democratic margins in the House and the Senate, and had the overwhelming bulk of public opinion on his side. The Democrats were the party of civil rights and economic prosperity. Vietnam was barely a blip on the chart. But mounting war casualties, a determined Vietnamese resistance, and ferocious international opposition to the war changed all that. By 1968, Johnson's public mandate had evaporated. Four years earlier, Democrats had gotten more than 60 percent of the vote, pollsters projected that the Democrats would get half that number in 1968.
The Vietnam debacle and continuing racial turmoil also revived a Republican Party moribund for nearly a century in the South. In the next decades, Republicans Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Jr. adroitly tweaked, refined, and massaged the Southern strategy to seal the White House.
Much of the public has reacted to the Iraq war swifter and angrier than it did initially to the Vietnam War. Polls have found that it took nearly a decade for a majority of Americans to sour on the Vietnam War. It has taken half that time for Americans to knock Bush for Iraq. In fact, the massive protests over the Iraq war have matched the Vietnam protests in numbers and intensity almost from the moment that Bush decided to launch the war.
Bush, unlike Johnson, also doesn't have the luxury of a compelling racial crisis to grab public attention. Johnson's performance and popularity in opinion polls was measured by how effectively he dealt with racial issues. The public's deep preoccupation with race deflected attention from the mounting quagmire that Vietnam by 1965 had become. That gave Johnson the political breathing space to lie and deceive Americans that Vietnam was a crusade against Communism. This was crucial to sell the war to Congress and the public.
The Iraq War has quickly muscled out domestic issues to become the defining issue that Bush, and much of the American public, measures his administration's success or failure on. Bush's performance and approval ratings have and will continue to take hits as battlefield casualties mount, and more thousands take to the streets to demand an end to the debacle.
Bush's defiance in the face of protests from all Republican corners that the war can sink Republican political fortunes for years to come isn't likely to change. And that's more than enough to make Republicans scared stiff about Iraq, and their future.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006). earlofarihutchinson.blogspot.com