Watching the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates debate this week in New Hampshire leaves an uncomfortable but undeniable impression: the Democrats, for all their individual imperfections and collective gamesmanship, are nonetheless trying to come to grips with a challenging and very real world. The Republicans, on the other hand, are operating in a bubble: a political world that bears as little relationship to reality as that artificial television concoction Survivor.
Only the impossibly long-shot libertarian Republican, Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, appeared to be living on the same planet as the nearly 60 percent of Americans who believe the war in Iraq was a terrible mistake. The rest of the GOP field has not only drunk the Kool-Aid, they are still savoring it and testifying to its misunderstood complexity.
There is a reason for this perverse delusion. Bush recaptured the White House on the strength of two big lies: that Iraq was responsible for 9/11, and that invading Iraq was central to continued national security. To question the legitimacy of the Iraq War today would be to deny the legitimacy of the Bush regime and, thus, the legitimacy of his party’s right to govern. It is no surprise that — to varying degrees and with varying caveats — the crew of GOP hopefuls favored pardoning “Scooter” Libby, Vice-President Cheney’s former chief of staff who, earlier on the day of their debate, was sentenced to 30 months in jail for lying to investigators about the unmasking of one-time covert CIA employee Valerie Plame. Libby, of course, is a fall guy for the White House conspirators who planned Iraq; the federal prosecutor who nailed him overreached, as prosecutors too often do, and the judge handed down an overly harsh sentence untempered by the larger context. But it is that context — the fact of the war and its basis in a lie — that all but one Republican sought to obfuscate.
The slick assurance with which former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani support Bush’s war is either supremely stupid or debasingly cynical. McCain’s insistent support for the troop surge can only be construed as certifiably delusional.
Those Democrats who are understandably disturbed by New York senator Hillary Clinton’s refusal to apologize — until relatively recently — for supporting Bush’s initial Iraq strategy should keep this in mind. A vast and measurable gulf separates the Republican from the Democratic candidates.
The Democrats — be they leader or laggard — are trying to come to grips with real-life problems; their struggles to do so, not surprisingly, raise more questions than the candidates can satisfactorily answer. At least for now.
The Republicans, meanwhile, politely pirouette inside their shiny bubble, with disagreements about immigration making a cameo. Voters were foolish enough to put the Republicans in the White House in the two most recent national elections. It is not a forgone conclusion that it will not happen again.