If It Hadn’t Been For Iraq!

One of the more interesting byproducts of Tenth Anniversary reflections on the Iraq War has been the effort of many conservatives to blame it for all the problems of the Bush administration’s second term, and then for the rise of Democrats before and during Barack Obama’s election in 2008. I wrote last week about Phillip Klein’s argument that Iraq made Obamacare possible. On Sunday Ross Douthat made a broader argument that the war (or more specifically, the failure of the war) ruined Bush’s second-term agenda, united a previously divided Democratic Party, and created the netroots-fueled “energy” that fed Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008.

As with many revisionist arguments, Douthat’s suffers from a habit of telescoping events. Bush’s Social Security “reform” proposal wasn’t wrecked by Iraq; it never commanded significant public support, and certainly wasn’t something his narrow 2004 re-election gave him any mandate to pursue. Conservatives didn’t abandon “compassionate conservatism” because Bush’s approval ratings were collapsing; they never much liked it to begin with, and argued, with some justice, that it hadn’t brought him major inroads into “swing” constituencies in 2004. And while the war was indeed a major factor in the rise of the “netroots,” so, too, were the Supreme Court’s hijacking of the 2000 presidential election, the enactment of the Bush tax cuts, an intensification of financial and industrial deregulation under Bush, a stagnant economy characterized by growing inequality, and war-related violations of civil liberties that did not particularly depend on whether the war “succeeded” or “failed.” And then there was this little thing called technology, which would have created a “netroots” with or without the provocation of the war.

The more you read Douthat’s piece, the more it sounds like one of those “if I had some ham, I’d make a ham sandwich, if I had some bread” arguments that if absolutely everything had been different, well, everything would have been different.

In his own rebuttal to Douthat, which focuses a lot on the continuities of Democratic voting behavior before, during and after the war effort fell apart, TNR’s Nate Cohn hits at the argument’s not-so-hidden motive:

To blame the Iraq war for the ascent of liberalism is to suggest that the public hasn’t really repudiated conservatism: Americans’ judgment was simply clouded by a single, albeit enormous, Republican-led misstep.

Here Douthat’s attitude converges with that of many of his intra–party, Tea Folk rivals: whatever the problem is, conservatism is never to blame. It’s always some heresy, perversion, or accident afflicting the True Faith that’s at fault, and the answer is to reconstitute the Ancient Creed of Reagan or Goldwater or The Founders.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.