When prominent people in Washington spend an anniversary apologizing for being catastrophically, unforgivably wrong about a decade-old decision, you might expect that the decision in question had delivered their party to disaster or defeat. But last weeks many Iraq war mea culpas were rich in irony: One by one, prominent liberals lined up to apologize for supporting a war thats responsible for liberalisms current political and cultural ascendance.
History is too contingent to say that, had there been no Iraq invasion in 2003, there would be no Democratic majority in 2012. (Its 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. Bushs Middle East policies.
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 anti-war rebellion on the left no Michael Moore and Howard Dean, no Daily Kos and all its netroots imitators.
This rebellion divided the Democrats, but it also energized them. During the long Reagan era, American liberalism was an ossified establishment pitted against a successful right-wing insurgency. But the anti-Iraq war insurgency created something new in modern politics a kind of movement liberalism that thought of itself in the same scrappy, ideologically driven terms as the conservative movement, and that was determined to imitate conservatisms tactics, institutions and success.
Had the Iraq invasion turned out differently, this movement and the Democratic establishment might have spent a decade locked in conflict. But when the weapons of mass destruction didnt 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 liberalisms infrastructure and organizing and communication.
This synthesis was then solidified by the Obama campaign. Barack Obama the candidate convinced both the insurgents (who originally preferred John Edwards) and the Hillary-favoring establishment that he was one of them, and his team leveraged grass-roots enthusiasm and online savvy to build the juggernaut that won in 2008 and 2012.
But Obama didnt benefit just from the zeal that entered the Democratic Party through the anti-war movement; he also benefited from the domestic policy vacuum left by Bushs Iraq-ruined second term. The Bush White Houses compassionate conservatism was the last major Republican attempt to claim the political center to balance traditional conservative goals on taxes and entitlement reform with more bipartisan appeals on education, health care, immigration and poverty. And as long as the Republican Party was successfully hovering near the middle, the Democrats had to hover there as well.
But once Bushs foreign policy credibility collapsed, his domestic political capital collapsed as well: Moderates stopped working with him, conservatives rebelled and the White Houses planned second-term agenda Social Security reform, tax and health care reform, immigration overhaul never happened.
This collapse, and the Republican Partys failure to recover from it, enabled the Democrats to not only seize the center but also to push it leftward and advance far bolder proposals than either Al Gore or John Kerry had dared to offer. The Iraq war didnt just make Obama possible it made Obamacare possible as well.
Nor is it a coincidence that these liberal policy victories have been accompanied by liberal gains in the culture wars. True, theres no necessary connection between the Bush administrations Iraq floundering and, say, the rights setbacks in the gay-marriage debate. But cultural change is a complicated thing, built on narratives and symbols and intuitive leaps.
As The American Conservatives Dan McCarthy noted in a shrewd essay, the Vietnam War helped entrench a narrative in which liberal social movements were associated with defeat in Indochina and this association didnt have to be perfectly fair to be politically and culturally potent.
In a similar way, even though Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney werent 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 administrations blunders the missing WMD, 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.
Of all the Iraq wars consequences for our politics, its this narrative that may be the wars most lasting legacy, and the most difficult for conservatives to overcome.
The New York Times