As everyone knows, the Republican Party has spiraled into disrepute. A whopping 20 percent of Americans have swung from positive to negative on the GOP in just three years, leaving pretty much only hard-core partisans in the clubhouse/bunker. It’s Iraq, of course—but not just Iraq. The GOP’s remarkable success at presidential politics the past 40 years has been a function of its “daddy party” image—happy to exercise military power abroad, unaccommodating of misbehavior and hard-luck stories at home, penny-pinching, can-do— in contrast to the Democrats’ “mommy party” M.O. of naïveté, mollycoddling, and profligacy. And the Republicans’ only shot at electing a president next year really does depend on pushing that old trope. Ken Duberstein, the Reagan chief of staff turned lobbyist and board whore (Boeing, Fannie Mae, etc.), insisted the other day that “the Republican Party continues to be the ‘daddy party.’ ”
But that is beginning to sound wishful. In fact, if the Democrats don’t blow it, 2008 could be the election that finishes off the pro-GOP salience of the tough-daddy-soft-mommy paradigm. Because the Republicans are being rapidly rebranded as a party of men who exemplify the least attractive, most pathetic aspects of the gender—they are the stubborn, arrogant, lazy, incompetent (Iraq, Katrina), hypocritical, crude, nasty fathers, Homer Simpson crossed with Tony Soprano, the kind of men who snarl and posture as old-fashioned patresfamilias but don’t come through when and where it counts. The GOP is becoming the deadbeat-daddy party.
Theirs is also the party of moral righteousness in which the Reverend Ted Haggard, Congressman Mark Foley, and Senators David Vitter and Larry Craig were all, only a year ago, leading lights. And consider the personal backgrounds of the top Republican presidential contenders, who seem more mack daddy than Father Knows Best. Rudy Giuliani contrived to annul his fourteen-year-long first marriage to his cousin, then publicly cheated on his second wife, and now, having married his mistress, has alienated both his children. Notoriously alley-catting Fred Thompson impregnated the mother of his children in high school and then married a babelicious, 24-years-younger second wife—and, lacking much (manly, paternal) taste for hard work, has by all accounts let the wives push him along in politics. It’s ironic, and a bit awkward, that the only GOP candidate who’s had just one wife, Mitt Romney, is the Mormon great-grandson of polygamists.
Although Hillary still has her swinger husband to worry about, she and he are still married, and indeed the three leading Democratic candidates, by comparison to most of the Republicans, are the very pictures of traditional family values—even-keeled, good providers, long marriages to just one spouse, children who evidently like them. They each ooze competence and seriousness. And indeed their party, when it has run the executive branch, has proved itself to be fiscally prudent and disciplined, the better-governing parents: Of the last seven administrations, the two with the smallest growth in federal spending were the Democratic ones, Clinton’s and Carter’s. And the biggest spendthrift? The current one.
All that needs to happen for the partisan rebranding to complete itself is for the independent-minded middle third of the electorate to be convinced, once and for all, that they can really trust Democratic leaders to do whatever’s necessary to keep us safe. Bill Clinton did okay on foreign policy, but given the peaceful slough over which he presided—after the Cold War, before 9/11—those eight years now seem like the Democrats’ national-security dress rehearsal. A majority may have come to see the old daddy party as half-assed and reckless, but in this jihadi era, they need to feel in their gut that the Democrats are Jodie Foster mommies, shrewd and steely and perfectly willing to kill bad guys.
In Hillary Clinton, an actual mommy, the metaphor and reality are finally united. Which is, of course, her particular Catch-22 as a candidate for president: It’s her unfeminine coldness that turns people off, even though heart-on-her-sleeve shows of (Bill Clintonian) emotion—or “apologizing” for her vote in 2002 to authorize the war—would make her seem too soft and girlie to be commander-in-chief.
When it comes to most candidates’ positions on Iraq, and certainly hers, it’s impossible to parse out precisely the mix of motivations—how much is a good-faith struggle to figure out a nuanced, least-bad policy and how much is a political calculation to maximize votes? I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, and not only because her views have more or less tracked along with mine.
The sincerity or insincerity of her Iraq position(s) notwithstanding, her obvious appreciation of the high-stakes complexity of scaling back our military involvement in Iraq—the nuanced understanding that so infuriates the hysterical Kos wing of her party—is surely helping to convince regular, not necessarily Republican citizens that most Democrats aren’t simpleminded weenies about military power and geopolitics. As are the similarly sensible positions of the other leading Democratic candidates.
Thus people now say in polls that they trust the Democrats much more than Bush to manage our endgame in Iraq. (I think that even most Republicans who tell pollsters they approve of Bush’s handling of Iraq don’t really, or else they’d be supporting John McCain; they’re like members of a family who know Dad has behaved appallingly but refuse to admit it to outsiders.) But the broader, more durable shift in Americans’ confidence concerning national security is still on the bubble, according to the polls, with Americans split evenly on the question of which party’s leaders will “do a better job of protecting the country.” In other words, an ambivalent 10 percent or so trust the Democrats more on Iraq but the Republicans, still, on war and counterterrorism generally—and it’s that sliver that decides close national elections. What the Democrats say and do about Iraq—in Congress and on the campaign trail and in the White House, should they win—is what will finally rid them of the invidious part of the mommy-party image, or not.
As it happens, this Rosh Hashanah week is indeed the beginning of a new year for U.S. policy in Iraq. The key moments come this week, when General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testify to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, followed by Bush’s own written report to Congress.
Petraeus’s testimony on the military situation, as opposed to Crocker’s on political reconciliation, will tilt positive. “I see tangible progress,” he might say. “Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt from the ground up. There are reasons for optimism. Momentum has gathered in recent months.” The depressing thing, and the reason a lot of people will be skeptical, is that he already did say exactly that about Iraq—three years ago.
But he can point out that political murders of civilians in Baghdad and suicide bombings have been reduced substantially, that U.S. military deaths are down, and that Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia’s new truce is helpful. And he will surely talk about the best change of all, the deus ex machina that has suddenly turned the Sunnis in Anbar province into our anti–al Qaeda allies, and whether that might plausibly be replicated elsewhere.
After Bush last week made a feint toward declaring victory and starting to pull out U.S. forces, Petraeus will undoubtedly make troop withdrawal, beginning very modestly this winter, semi-official policy. Which is not to say that partisan name-calling will end. The pace of withdrawal will continue to be argued ferociously, and Democrats will, quite rightly, let no one forget whose mess Iraq is. Disagreement—between Democrats and Republicans, among Democratic presidential candidates—will be exaggerated for political effect.
Yet there is in fact on Iraq a rough bipartisan consensus that dare not speak its name, thanks both to the imperatives of election-year politics and to the fact that the realistic options are so horribly limited. Just four of the seventeen presidential candidates are in favor of immediate and total withdrawal, and only one wants to increase troop levels—which more or less reflects the split of national sentiment. And the Democratic leadership is softening on its demand for a fixed troop-withdrawal deadline in order to forge a compromise bill that could attract enough Republican votes to form a filibuster-proof supermajority.
One of the bipartisan schemes being bruited would turn the Iraq Study Group’s plan into law. Fine, as far as it goes, but that document is now nine months old. Our leaders would do well to update it with the findings and recommendations in two new, bracingly smart, clear-eyed reports by Anthony Cordesman, the military and geopolitical strategy éminence grise, based on his two-week trip to Iraq in July. In the first, “The Tenuous Case for Strategic Patience in Iraq,” he says that because the occupation was so terribly handled, we still have “a moral and ethical” obligation to the Iraqi people. And simply as a logistical task, he estimates, the withdrawal of U.S. troops and matériel will easily take a year, maybe longer. And in “America’s Last Chance in Iraq,” published last week, Cordesman says that because “the odds of any form of enduring success are even at best…the Bush Administration…needs to present a credible ‘Plan B’…for the contingency where Iraq’s leaders do not move forward.”
President Bush, Cordesman writes, must stop “exaggerating progress and understating risks, relying on rhetoric and empty slogans.” In other words, it’s time for our tragic cheerleader-in-chief, a president allergic to pessimism or doubt, to suck it up and soberly admit that this glass really is half empty, and isn’t going to fill up no matter how hard we wish and hope. That’s what grown-ups—daddies, mommies, all of us—do.