The political handlers over at the White House are probably grousing about the 17 Republican votes that were cast against the president’s plan to send more troops to Iraq. Rumors abound that conservative Republican “activists” are now targeting the GOP naysayers for primary opposition. These reactionaries couldn’t be more misguided and wrong about what’s best for the Republican Party and the nation whose interest the party serves. Instead of excoriating Republicans who said no to Bush’s plan, they should be privately thankful that someone in their party broke ranks. In the long run, if handled right, those “no” votes will benefit GOP candidate recruitment and electoral success in swing districts, helping the party recapture majority control.
No, I am not an opponent of Bush’s surge. I would have voted yes. But I am neither a member of Congress nor a military strategist. I am just a pollster and political consultant. So, from my perch, I mainly try and understand the political implications of the vote and the dissidents. From that perspective, 17 Republican “no” votes were an excellent signal to send the American electorate. Yes, the vast majority of Republicans stand by the president and party leader, George Bush. But Republicans, both those who voted yes and no, must have been motivated by their principles rather than partisanship. Otherwise, it would have been a straight-line party vote. It speaks volumes the some Republicans feel so strongly about their principles that they chose to walk the hard path of defecting. It says that Republicans think. It says that Republicans listen to the people they represent. It says that Republicans are principled. It says that Republicans stand their ground even when it’s tough. These messages benefit all Republicans.
A key problem with the war in Iraq is that it’s become a partisan affair in the minds of too many Americans. And a difficulty with GOP partisan strategies regarding Iraq is that they are perceived as the personal agenda of just one man, George Bush. These perceptions are neither accurate nor true, but they are real. So anything that challenges the notion that the conflict in Iraq is simply George Bush’s Republican Party war is a good thing. It helps Republicans. It helps the nation. And it makes achieving some sort of victory in Iraq more likely. Americans might support a war effort that is non-partisan, but only 30 percent or so will back a conflict that is partisan or personal.
The Republicans that plan to savage GOP dissidents in primaries should ponder the case of Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Lieberman’s principled support for the war effort in Iraq reassures us that some Democrats still think. Without Lieberman’s very visible and steady fight against knee-jerk Democratic opposition to the war, I don’t know that the Democrats would have enjoyed the success they experienced in November’s elections. Joe Lieberman reminded Americans that Democrats aren’t always wrong. He suggested that some Democrats put principle ahead of party. And some marginal Democrats benefited from Lieberman’s persona. I think many savvy Democrats knew this and it explains why most didn’t come unglued when Lieberman challenged Ned Lamont, the official Democratic nominee. Lieberman was enhancing the luster of the Democratic brand last year.
My reasoning will be validated in the next election. Republican activists will round up challengers for the 17 Republican war dissenters. Most every challenger will be crushed in the primary. Any that aren’t will get decimated in the general election. And the dissenters who get past their primary challenges will all do better in the general than they did in 2006 and will, on average, do better than other Republicans against the “normal vote.” This is the only scenario that allows the GOP to regain majority status.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.