Ross Douthat's latest column is wrong and incoherent in ways that are hard to pin down, but let me try. Douthat believes that the failed Iraq War was a really lucky break for liberals:
History is too contingent to say that had there been no Iraq invasion in 2003, there would be no Democratic majority in 2012. (It's easy enough to imagine counterfactuals that might have put Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office.) But the Democratic majority that we do have is a majority that the Iraq war created: its energy and strategies, its leadership and policy goals, and even its cultural advantages were forged in the backlash against George W. Bush's Middle East policies.I don't know which way to attack this argument first. Douthat seems to be suggesting that, absent the rise of the netroots, Democrats would never have won another presidential election -- this despite the fact that Democrats beat Republicans in the presidential popular vote in 1992, 1996, and 2000.
All those now-apologetic liberals who supported the war in 2003 are a big part of this story, because without their hawkishness there would have been no antiwar rebellion on the left -- no Michael Moore and Howard Dean, no Daily Kos and all its "netroots" imitators.
... Had the Iraq invasion turned out differently, this movement and the Democratic establishment might have spent a decade locked in conflict. But when the W.M.D. didn't turn up and the occupation turned into a fiasco, the two wings of the party made peace: the establishment embraced the grass roots' anti-Bush fervor, and the insurgents helped transform liberalism's infrastructure and organizing and communication.
This synthesis was then solidified by the Obama campaign....
Also, what's Douthat's counterfactual? Is he asking us to imagine a world in which the Bushies were correct in their assessment of intelligence about WMDs and competent in their management of the war, even though the rest of the Bush presidency was an exercise in incompetence, from letting 9/11 happen to letting bin Laden get away to busting the budget to destroying the financial system, with Katrina incompetence along the way? Didn't America turn against Bush not because he screwed up Iraq, but because he screwed up everything? How do you filter just one failure out?
Douthat goes on to write:
But Obama didn't just benefit from the zeal that entered the Democratic Party through the antiwar movement; he also benefited from the domestic policy vacuum left by Bush's Iraq-ruined second term.Douthat is flat-out wrong if he thinks there's a link between Bush's loss of foreign policy credibility and the failure of his Social Security overhaul. Bush put forward the Social Security proposal immediately after his second inaugural; by March 2005, the plan was so unpopular, with members of Congress and the general public, that it never had a chance. And yet at that time Bush still had approval ratings hovering around 50%. Bush's freefall in the polls didn't kill his Social Security plan; it really may have been Social Security, not Iraq, that led to Bush's poll plummet.
... once Bush's foreign policy credibility collapsed, his domestic political capital collapsed as well: moderates stopped working with him, conservatives rebelled, and the White House's planned second-term agenda -- Social Security reform, tax and health care reform, immigration overhaul -- never happened.
And by the time Bush was proposing immigration reform, the only people still generally on Bush's side were the right-wing end-timers -- and they're the ones who opposed him, while continuing to be unswervingly loyal to him on just about everything else. (They opposed him on this, Harriet Miers, and Dubai Ports World -- that's it.) Many of his supporters on immigration were Democrats who opposed him on most other issues. The politics of Iraq were irrelevant.
And then there's this from Douthat:
Nor is it a coincidence that [current] liberal policy victories have been accompanied by liberal gains in the culture wars.But if we're talking about gay rights, remember that we're talking about a movement that made a great deal of progress during the Reagan era, an era otherwise marked by an extreme conservative backlash -- and that happened despite the AIDS epidemic and initial calls for action such as quarantine and tattooing of homosexuals.
...even though Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney weren't culture warriors or evangelical Christians, in the popular imagination their legacy of incompetence has become a reason to reject social conservatism as well. Just as the post-Vietnam Democrats came to be regarded as incompetent, wimpy and dangerously radical all at once, since 2004 the Bush administration's blunders -- the missing W.M.D., the botched occupation -- have been woven into a larger story about Youth and Science and Reason and Diversity triumphing over Old White Male Faith-Based Cluelessness.
And if we're going to talk about public revulsion against Republicans on issues of science vs. superstition, one name has to be mentioned (of course Douthat doesn't): that of Terri Schiavo. The public was revulsed by the Bush/GOP approach to the Schiavo case, and that had a significant impact on Bush's popularity. Once again, how do you imagine Bush administration competence on Iraq while also recalling that debacle?
Ultimately, the problem with Douthat's argument is that it tries to separate what Bush believed from how he carried it out. Yes, Bush screwed up, but a major reason he screwed up was that his ideas were wrong -- and they weren't just his ideas, they were mainstream Republican ideas: neocon attitudes toward Iraq, Social Security privatization, a religious-right approach to end-of-life issues, contempt for the largely non-white population of New Orleans, and, ultimately, a laissez-faire approach to financial regulation that destroyed the world economy. If an opposition party promoting different ideas went on to victory, it's because the public rejected many of the ideas of Bush conservatism as well as their execution, not because of one isolated debacle.