The 2006 Elections and the War in Iraq

In last Friday’s Washington Post, columnist Charles Krauthammer tried to argue that tomorrow’s mid-term elections would not deliver a historic and decisive blow to President Bush’s agenda, particularly his agenda in Iraq.

Krauthammer’s argument is based on his reading of the history of mid-year elections. He noted that the anticipated “anti-Republican wave” – a net pick up of perhaps 20-25 House seats, and 4-6 Senate seats, by the Democrats – is relatively modest by historical standards. Reagan lost more in the 6th year of his presidency; so too FDR. One of the greatest mid-term election disasters (not noted by Krauthammer) occurred in Dwight Eisenhower’s 6th year, 1958. At a time when Eisenhower was personally quite popular, the Democrats added nearly 50 members in the House, and another 16 in the Senate, building upon their already commanding majorities in both chambers. 

I’m all for studying history. But recent history paints a decidedly different picture than what Krauthammer suggests. The GOP was embarrassed by the results of the 1998 mid-term elections, a failure to capitalize on the 6th year itch that Krauthammer attributes to “Republican overreaching on the Monica Lewinsky scandal.” Given low unemployment, modest inflation, and continued strong economic growth, it is not inconceivable that the Bush administration might have been poised to avoid a 6th year setback (if so, would Harold Meyerson be lamenting “Democratic overreaching on the Mark Foley scandal”?).

Instead, the GOP is playing defense, and Iraq war advocates such as Krauthammer are scrambling to avoid blame for any of the ill-effects of their ill-conceived war. (See also the VanityFair.com article highlighting neoconservative criticisms of the Bush administration’s execution of the war).

The Iraq war is the decisive issue for the vast majority of Americans, exceeding taxes, immigration, health care, and other presumed drivers of voting behavior. Further, the war is unpopular, the costs have far exceeded the benefits, and there is no end in sight. As David Boaz and David Kirby note in a recent Cato Policy Analysis, the Iraq war was a factor – along with “Republican overspending, social intolerance, [and] civil liberties infringements” – in driving many libertarian voters away from George Bush in 2004. “If that trend continues into 2006 and 2008,” they write, “Republicans will lose elections they would otherwise win.” 

On the whole, voters are frustrated, impatient, and angry. If the GOP staves off disaster, they will do so in spite of, not because of, the disastrous war in Iraq.