During a 2007 Republican presidential debate, candidate Ron Paul said of the Iraq War, “We never should have gone in.”
Most on the debate stage that night laughed at him.
In the Wall Street Journal, former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote of the reaction to Paul, “The debate was full of fireworks about Iraq, about its essentials — the rightness of the endeavor…” adding, “After Mr. Paul spoke, it seemed half the room booed, but the other applauded.”
Noonan continued, “When a thousand Republicans are in a room and one man of the eight on the stage takes a sharply minority viewpoint on a dramatic issue and half the room seems to cheer him, something’s going on.” Noonan observed, “As he spoke, you could hear other candidates laughing in the background.”
“They should stop giggling, and engage in a serious way,” she advised.
Last week, they finally did.
Likely 2016 candidate Jeb Bush was forced, begrudgingly, to say that his brother had made a mistake in invading Iraq, after originally saying the war was justified. In the three days it took for Bush to clarify, most of the Republican presidential field rushed to say they thought the war was a mistake. Chris Christie said it. Ted Cruz said it too. John Kasich chimed in. Rand Paul has always it was a mistake to invade Iraq. Marco Rubio said it was a mistake and then tried, clumsily, to take it back.
But why would Republicans start saying this now?
For the same reason Jeb Bush saw the practical need to change his position—if you want to become president, it’s become a necessity.
For years—including in 2007—most Americans considered the Iraq War one of the worst foreign policy decisions in modern history. Because of its overwhelming unpopularity, supporting or defending the Iraq War has become a significant political liability.
Just ask Hillary Clinton.
Last week reflected Republicans finally playing catch-up—albeit almost a decade after Ron Paul had tried to tell them the same thing.
When viewed through a partisan lens, support for something even as tragically misguided as the Iraq War is not hard to understand. In 2007, that war still had support among most Republicans because it was the primary feature of George W. Bush’s foreign policy. Supporting it, and opposing a vociferous anti-war left, had been integral to Republican identity for a better part of the decade.
Republicans had no more intention of disavowing their president’s foreign policy agenda than Democrats had in running away from Obama’s healthcare agenda (unless politically forced, similar to Jeb Bush). Popular or not, logical or not, these positions were part of who they were as a party.
And this partisan stubbornness has cost Republicans dearly.
Many Republicans continued to mock Paul throughout his 2008 and 2012 campaigns, while the Iraq War and its legacy played no small part in delivering the White House to Barack Obama. Twice.
On stage that night in 2007 when Ron Paul was laughed at, stood 2008 Republican nominee John McCain, an early supporter of the Iraq War and unrepentant hawk. Also present was 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, who said, “It was the right decision to go into Iraq.”
To get rid of this baggage, or begin to get rid of it, there would have to be a dramatic break or some visible shift within the GOP.
That’s what last week was about.
The brother of George W. Bush has now essentially vindicated what Ron Paul was trying to tell his party eight years ago. So have most of Bush’s 2016 rivals.
In 2007, they giggled when Paul spoke. Last week, no one was laughing.
Republicans were too busy falling all over themselves to agree that Ron Paul got it right.