Mitt Romney shows establishment still ignorant of wartime casualties

The broadside Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyThe Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck Democratic challenger leads Tillis by 1 point in North Carolina poll The Memo: Can Trump run as an outsider? MORE made in the Washington Post against the foreign policy of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpNew EPA rule would expand Trump officials' powers to reject FOIA requests Democratic senator introduces bill to ban gun silencers Democrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question MORE is another clear sign that the bipartisan political establishment is largely oblivious to the terrible tragedy of wartime casualties disproportionately inflicted on certain communities in the United States. The warmed over “freedom agenda” that Romney offered in his opinion column is not only a morally bankrupt policy. It is a gigantic losing strategy for the Republicans, as he himself should know.

As political scientists Douglas Kriner and Francis Shen explained in a research paper, after decades of troops overseas, the description Trump made of the Iraq War as a “big fat mistake” helped him carry three key states in 2016 that Romney and other Republican presidential candidates had not carried in years. These key states were Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Kriner and Shen showed that if those states “had suffered even a modestly lower casualty rate” then all three of them could have flipped from red to blue and “sent Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden to debate for first time as front-runner Top Trump ally says potential Amash presidential bid could be problematic in Michigan Chaotic Trump transition leaks: Debates must tackle how Democrats will govern differently MORE to the White House.”


The success of Trump in these three states was directly related to his repudiation of the neoconservative foreign policy that had dominated the Republican platform for decades and had placed the casualty burden more heavily upon certain counties. In a trend that should have been visible to the Republicans by 2004, certain rural, less wealthy, and less educated counties in key states were bearing a disproportionate share of casualties in the endless wars propelled by our leaders in Washington. As Kriner and Shen pointed out in their research paper, “Voters in these communities became more likely to vote against politicians perceived as orchestrating the conflicts in which their friends and neighbors died.”

The political impact of war casualties emerged during the 2006 election. As Kriner and Shen noted in “The Casualty Gap,” neoconservative Iraq War supporter Rick Santorum lost significant backing between 2000 and 2006 in the very Pennsylvania counties where voters had witnessed higher war casualties. As Kriner and Shen pointed out, “55 percent of independents who knew a either killed or wounded soldier supported the Democratic candidate versus only 44 percent of independents who did not express having personal contact with a casualty” during the 2006 election.

The Republicans either were not aware of this trend or they chose to ignore it by nominating foreign policy hawk John McCainJohn Sidney McCainVeterans group to hand out USS John McCain T-shirts for July 4 on the National Mall Will we ever have another veteran as president? Meghan McCain clashes with Joy Behar as the 'sacrificial Republican' on 'The View' MORE in 2008 and then Romney in 2012. They were candidates who failed to carry any of these three key states and were swamped in the Electoral College by Iraq War skeptic Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden to debate for first time as front-runner John Kerry: Play based on Mueller report is 'an act of public service' Obama photographed alongside Clooney on boat in Italy MORE. In 2016, Trump tore up the neoconservative playbook, outflanked a hawkish Clinton by criticizing the wars, and ensured surprise victories in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

Therefore, Romney lecturing Trump that he should staff his administration with hawkish interventionists and pursue policies that would overturn “authoritarian regimes” are not only dubious prescriptions, but also sure electoral losers, as they were in 2012. The obtuseness about the political costs of war casualties is not limited to the Republicans. The aggression in Syria and Libya prevented Clinton from adopting more restrained policies, and her incoherent explanations about her 2016 loss suggest that she is still unaware of the impact that war casualties made on her campaign.

The abrupt announcement by Trump that the military would be leaving Syria, while no doubt a messy decision from a process perspective, is nonetheless a signal that he may be aware that he was elected because of his opposition to ceaseless interventions. If he successfully withdraws American troops from Syria and Afghanistan by 2020, and he faces a traditional Democratic hawk such as Joseph Biden, Trump will be in a position to recreate his 2016 electoral coalition and win reelection. The challenging scenario for Trump would come if the Democrats were to nominate an articulate and patriotic critic of foreign interventions, who could build upon the strides the Democrats had with women in the suburbs while regaining the support of rural counties ravaged by war.

Most of our recent interventions have been unmitigated disasters, both for the countries that have experienced them and the service members who have fought them. When the United States government launches a long series of disasters that kill and maim thousands of American troops, political consequences should be expected. What is astonishing is that, after all this tragedy, Romney offers only cliched neoconservative bromides to the many heartbroken communities across the nation.

William S. Smith is a research fellow and managing director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship with the Catholic University of America.