During Saturday night’s debate, Donald Trump went full Michael Moore on the Iraq war. “I’m the only one on this stage that said, ‘Do not go into Iraq. Do not attack Iraq.’ Nobody else on this stage said that,” Trump remarked. “And I said it loud and strong. And I was in the private sector. I wasn’t a politician, fortunately.”
This, sadly, is false. There is no evidence that Trump said loudly or otherwise that going into Iraq would be a mistake. In fact, he said before the war that he wanted Saddam Hussein ousted: “I’m no warmonger. But the fact is, if we decide a strike against Iraq is necessary, it is madness not to carry the mission to its conclusion.” Trump’s opposition to the war began in August 2004, when that was a popular viewpoint.
Nonetheless, on Sunday Trump doubled down on his position:
Something’s going to have to happen with the party or we’re going to lose yet another election. I’m not even doing it to win election, I’m doing it out of common sense. The war was a horrible thing. If we’re not going to admit that, you’re going to have yet another election where the Democrats are going to win.
So here’s the question: is Trump right? Must Republicans declare that the war was a “horrible thing” in order to win election in the future?
In the 1970s, the Democrats turned against the Vietnam. They transformed the Vietnam War into some sort of Republican mission, putting Nixon’s face on it rather than LBJ’s. And it worked. The Democrats drove the war into the ground, losing it and damning hundreds of thousands to death and millions into tyranny. Then they blamed the Republicans for the war that LBJ had launched.
For the last four and a half decades, the Democrats have used the war in Vietnam as a model of everything wrong with the jingoistic, militaristic culture of the United States. But electorally, that hasn’t been a strength; it’s been a weakness. It’s easy to proclaim that Americans side with Democrats about war, but it isn’t the case. Ronald Reagan won in 1980 largely on the basis of Democratic foreign policy weakness. George H.W. Bush did the same in 1988, and would have again in 1992 if not for Ross Perot. George W. Bush won re-election in 2004 on the basis of strong war policy. Republicans do not need to turn into post-Vietnam Democrats, shouting “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!” in order to win again. They need to point out that Barack Obama is a foreign policy weakling, that he has degraded the military, and that he lost the war in Iraq -- and that Hillary was there, and will do the same.
But Trump is a politician of convenience and without principle. He knows that most Americans dislike the Iraq war overall, and so he uses it as a club to beat Jeb! Bush. He also believes that the majority of Americans will see him as a moderate campaigning to the left of Hillary Clinton on Iraq. This isn’t bad politics in the short term, but it’s not likely to win a Republican election.
Then again, Trump isn’t running as a Republican. He’s running as a figure – an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-dealmaking figure who Gets Things Done™. His shtick may work, but it’s not going to win any points for conservatism. As usual.