"When Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) saw reporters approaching him last week, he took off in a sprint, determined to say as little as possible about a nonbinding resolution opposing President Bush's troop-escalation plan, which is expected to come before the Senate today. 'You know where I stand,' the senator, who is considered politically vulnerable back home, said repeatedly as he fled down stairways at the Capitol. 'I'm still looking.'"
--Washington Post front page, February 5
And so are we. We're looking for more than a few good Republicans--and John McCain and Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell and Judd Gregg have been very good. (And Joe Lieberman has been very, very good. But he unfortunately is a party of one.) We're looking for a little more courage and outspokenness from Republicans across the board (including in the administration).
Most in the GOP, it should be emphasized, are holding firm, supporting their president at a critical time in a crucial war. But a lot of them are doing so quietly, and grudgingly. They might as well speak up in support of the president and his new Iraq commander, General David Petraeus, in their push for victory in Iraq. They will get no credit for their timidity from friends or opponents.
And then there are those Republicans who are fleeing as fast as their feet can carry them from Bush, and from the war--from a difficult and unpopular war prosecuted by a president of their party. After all, they reason, the polls are bad, and November 2008 is approaching.
Leave aside the substantive foolishness of their position (we're against the surge but we're unwilling to articulate an alternative). The fact is the politics of flight aren't attractive. The Republican party can't escape the Iraq war. It's the central foreign policy challenge taken on by the first post-Cold War Republican administration. If the war ends badly for the country, and the country is convinced that the war was either unnecessary or prosecuted fecklessly, Republican senators and congressmen won't save themselves by jumping ship in February of 2007. The whole party will suffer--the courageous few and the silent majority and the comically evasive alike.
Consider Vietnam. Between 1964 and 1968 the Democrats split and the country lost confidence in them. The Democratic share of the presidential vote went from 61 percent in 1964 to 42 percent in 1968. And Democrats lost 9 Senate seats and 52 House seats in that four-year period. In other words: If Bush loses in Iraq, Republicans across the board will pay a price in 2008 and beyond.
Fortunately, most Republicans are hanging in there with Bush and Petraeus. The number of GOP deserters--or, to be more charitable, conscientious objectors--remains small. The large majority of Republicans continue to support the effort in Iraq. But they could do so more outspokenly and more aggressively. They shouldn't view defending the war as simply a grim duty. After all, Gen. Petraeus, who assumes command this weekend, believes we can win the war. Whether we will depends on lots of factors, not all of them in our control. Still, there is a decent chance of victory. Helping him--and the troops, and the nation--achieve a successful outcome is no small thing. Surely Republicans should view it as a matter of pride to be able to provide him with that support.
Isn't that what political parties are for? Isn't that why one enters politics--to make a difference at a time of difficulty and uncertainty? Fighting for a good cause is why parties are formed and supported, and why they sometimes prove themselves deserving of loyalty. Henry Wallace and his fellow travelers abandoned Harry Truman in 1947-48. What made the modern Democratic party worth belonging to for the next generation was the fact that the majority of the party rallied behind Truman, and provided--along with public-spirited Republicans--the domestic support needed in the early years of the Cold War. (Today, alas, Henry Wallace's heirs dominate Truman's party). The reason many Americans became Republicans in recent times is that the GOP stood with Reagan (when Democrats in large measure did not) behind the policies that brought down the evil empire.
What better cause is there today, at the beginning of this new century of danger and challenge, than support for victory in a just war? The consequences of defeat would be ghastly. The prospect of victory is difficult but real. This is when a political party proves its worth.
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