Partisan Divide on Iraq Exceeds Split on Vietnam


No military conflict in modern times has divided Americans more than the war in Iraq not even Vietnam.
by Robin Toner and Jum Rutenberg

Left, supporters of the Iraq war sang God Bless America at a Brooklyn rally in April 2003. A poll shows attitudes dividing starkly on party lines. Right, in Michigan, a group protesting the war in Iraq gathered in February 2003 for a demonstration at the state Capitol in Lansing.

No military conflict in modern times has divided Americans on partisan lines more than the war in Iraq, scholars and pollsters say not even Vietnam. And those divisions are likely to intensify in what is expected to be a contentious fall election campaign.

The latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows what one expert describes as a continuing chasm between the way Republicans and Democrats see the war. Three-fourths of the Republicans, for example, said the United States did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq, while just 24 percent of the Democrats did. Independents split down the middle.

The present divisions are quite without precedent, said Ole R. Holsti, a professor of political science at Duke University and the author of Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy.

The Vietnam War caused a wrenching debate that echoes to this day and shaped both parties, but at the time, public opinion did not divide so starkly on party lines, experts say…


The partisan divide on Iraq has fluctuated but endured across two intensely fought campaigns in which war and peace and the overarching campaign against terrorism have figured heavily. Each party has its internal differences, especially on future strategy for Iraq. But the overall divide is a defining feature of the fall campaign.

The White House’s top political advisers are advancing a strategy built around national security, arguing that Iraq is a central front in the battle against global terrorism and that opposition to the war is tantamount to cutting and running in a broader struggle to keep America safe.

After three years of conflict, Democrats argue that the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq should not be equated with a stronger, safer America. Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, said recently, Nearly everywhere you look from the Middle East to Asia America’s enemies have been emboldened by the administration’s mismanagement of Iraq.

The voters, at times, are even more impassioned. Representative Henry J. Hyde, Republican of Illinois and chairman of the International Relations Committee, said that voters, pro or con, were treating the war the way they treated the mention of Richard M. Nixon in the 1974 post-Watergate midterm campaign. Nobody is tepid on this issue, said Mr. Hyde, who is planning to retire.

Many experts and members of both parties say they worry about the long-term consequences of such bitter partisan polarization and its effect on the longstanding tradition although one often honored in the breach that foreign policy is built on bipartisan trust and consensus.

The old idea that politics stops at the water’s edge is no longer with us, and I think we’ve lost something as a result, said John C. Danforth, a former senator and an ambassador to the United Nations under President Bush.

Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said, There used to be some unwritten rules when it came to foreign policy.

These divisions do not run across foreign policy. The latest poll shows no comparable partisan gap, for example, in attitudes toward the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. On Capitol Hill, even as lawmakers position themselves furiously over Iraq, they produce big bipartisan majorities on issues like this week’s nuclear deal with India or last week’s resolution expressing support for Israel.

But compared with past conflicts from Vietnam to the war in the Persian Gulf to Afghanistan the war in Iraq evoked strong partisan passions from the start.

I’m a child of the 60’s and the Vietnam War, Judy Smitko, a 63-year-old retired college professor and Democrat in San Diego, said in a follow-up interview to the New York Times/CBS poll. It’s their country. It’s their own decision. Unfortunately, we’re in it, but I believe we should be out of it in 18 months.

Bernard Thompson, a 72-year-old retiree from Corsicana, Tex., said Mr. Bush was coming to grips with this worldwide threat, and we’ve got to stamp it out if we are going to survive.

Mr. Thompson, a Republican, added: The point is, we’re at war. Just think of what would have happened if the country had turned on Roosevelt.

An analysis by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that the difference in the way Democrats and Republicans viewed the Vietnam War specifically, whether sending American troops was a mistake never exceeded 18 percentage points between 1966 and 1973. In the most recent Times/CBS poll on Iraq, the partisan gap on a similar question was 50 percentage points.

The poll was based on telephone interviews conducted July 21 through July 25 with 1,127 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

The overall shift in public opinion on the war largely depends on how independents fall and lately, they have been agreeing more with the Democrats, said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.

Christopher F. Gelpi, a political scientist at Duke, said the only partisan divide that came close to the division over Iraq occurred during President Ronald Reagan’s military action in Grenada, but it was much smaller.

Experts cited several reasons for the extent of this partisan divide: Mr. Bush is a polarizing president in an intensely partisan age, they say. Gary C. Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, said, The divisions on the war exacerbate the divisions on Bush, and the divisions on Bush exacerbate the divisions on the war.

Democrats are generally more skeptical about the use of force, especially without broad international support, and the course of the war has seemed to justify their doubts.

Republicans have been fiercely loyal to Mr. Bush for his handling of the fight against terrorism and see Democratic critiques as counterproductive to that effort.

Partisan passions have also been heightened, some analysts said, by the use of national security issues in the past two campaigns.

Democrats recall the 2002 campaign against Senator Max Cleland, Democrat of Georgia, as a turning point. Mr. Cleland, a triple amputee who was awarded a Silver Star in Vietnam, was defeated after an advertising campaign that accused him of being soft on national defense, at one point flashing images of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

Democrats say the Republicans repeatedly broke the old rules, treating national security as a wedge issue to make Democrats look weak and unacceptable, especially in 2004. George Bush decided to make foreign policy partisan in a way that Ronald Reagan or the first George Bush never did, said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said, The divisions over Iraq and national security are the house that Karl Rove and George Bush built.

But Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said the war and national security were entirely appropriate issues for election campaigns.

I don’t think we’re politicizing the war, Mr. Mehlman said. I think the fact is that there are legitimate and important differences, and it is the job of a campaign to clarify between individual candidates on what is the central question our nation faces, which is, How do you win this global war on terror?

Mr. Mehlman said presidents from both parties had used war as a campaign rallying point throughout history. But, he said, national security has been especially important to the Republican Party since the Reagan days, as Democrats in the post-Vietnam era have become increasingly antiwar.

He said it was Democratic leaders like Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who had broken the old rules, embracing defeatism, which I think is not only bad for American troops, but I think for their party.

Three months before the midterm elections, the exchanges are already rough. In Ohio, Senator Mike DeWine, a Republican, recently ran an advertisement showing the World Trade Center towers and accusing his Democratic challenger, Representative Sherrod Brown, of weakening America’s security by a series of votes on issues like financing for intelligence programs.

Ohio Democrats responded with an advertisement that said Mr. DeWine failed us on the intelligence committee before 9/11 and on weapons of mass destruction.

In independent interviews, two senior Republican strategists said that the war on terror with Iraq as its central front had been the single most effective motivator for base voters in internal party polls this year. Even so, some strategists said the continued violence in Iraq was a drag on many of their candidates, especially in moderate districts.

Among Republican voters in the latest Times/CBS poll, only 49 percent said they believed that the United States was winning the war, and 41 percent said neither side was winning.

Analysts in both parties say the intensity of Democratic feeling against the war will be a powerful motivator in this fall’s elections. The sentiment is perhaps most apparent in the Connecticut primary challenge to Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, a strong supporter of the war.

A variety of experts in both parties said they worried about the aftermath of intense partisanship.

This era in general feels excessively partisan, and national security has been put right into the mix of intense partisan debate, said Thomas E. Donilon, a lawyer and a former assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration. And it’s a mistake in terms of the president developing support for his position on these tough issues.

Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who until June 2003 served as director of policy planning for the State Department, said all nuance got lost in a campaign debate.

You end up with very stark choices: quote, stay the course, versus, quote, cut and run, Mr. Haass said. And in reality, a lot of policy needs to be made between them.

Many experts, though, said they were not sure what would change the current political climate. It’s hard to repair the breach, said John Podesta, former chief of staff for President Bill Clinton.


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