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Foreword: The folks over at the National Security Network have put together a critique of the 2010 Politics of Afghanistan post from Friday. [Original Post] In the spirit of vigorous debate as a tool for good new ideas, which we are highly supportive of here at FiveThirtyEight, we agreed to run the (660 word) critique by NSN*, followed by a brief response from me.

National Security Network:
Renard’s first argument is correct – there are indeed strong reasons for the administration and democratic allies in congress to hope that Afghanistan does not become a political football in the 2010 midterms. But his next conclusion – that this mood of ambivalence spells an opening for anti-incumbents – is difficult to accept, at least insofar as the GOP is concerned.

While there may be exceptions for particular circumstances, on a national level, it will be difficult for Republicans to run on an Afghanistan platform in 2010. The first reason for this is that widespread ambivalence over the war restricts the GOP’s ability to turn a pro-war position to their political advantage. At times during 2009, support for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan was well below 50%, a view fueled by dramatic increases in U.S. casualties during the spring and summer, as well as broader indications that the war was not going well.

While public confidence received a boost from the President’s strategy announcement, it will likely dip again as more American troops flow into the country, and casualties rise in relation. In this atmosphere, it’s hard to imagine GOP challengers finding an audience in favor of the war, or increased American involvement, except in very particular circumstances. At best they will argue that the Obama administration has mishandled the war, similar to the message many Democrats adopted in 2004, but not significantly to their advantage.

So what about anti-incumbent Republicans who oppose the war? Her again, they are constrained from using their position to an advantage. This time however, the constraints come more from their own party, than national public opinion.

Anti-War Republicans run into the problem that their party leadership has moved uniformly to support the war, making it difficult for challengers to take opposing positions. McConnell, Kyl, Boehner, Cantor – the entire GOP leadership is firmly in support of an expanded military mission in Afghanistan, even hinting that they would support further escalation if military commanders deemed it necessary.

They are joined by GOP ranking members on the relevant foreign policy committees, with the possible exception of Richard Lugar, who has attenuated his support with a push for greater focus on Pakistan. On HR 2647, Congressman McGovern’s bill requiring the Pentagon to provide an exit-strategy – probably the best stand-in for an up or down vote in support of the war – House Republicans were in lock-step, voting 164-7 against the amendment.

Now the republicans in congress do not perfectly represent the views of republicans nationwide, but even there, GOP leadership strongly supports the war. Following Obama’s West Point speech in December, RNC Chairman Michael Steele released a statement endorsing the war effort, but criticizing the President for wavering in his commitment. Republican campaign committee chairs John Cornyn and Pete Sessions echoed Steele’s message, endorsing a troop increase, while also blasting the Administration for not committing whole heartedly to the war effort. It’s difficult to see where GOP challengers could make hay from opposing the war, without bucking what appears to be a consensus among their party’s leadership.

The actions taken by GOP figures on Afghanistan are intended to create a security threshold for the administration that it cannot reach. If a Republican candidate went against this narrative they would be failing to reach their own party’s threshold. Running against the war also risks undermining the “we listen to the commanders on the ground” narrative, potentially setting the challengers against the military as well.

Though the divisions within the Democratic Party on the war should present an opening for Republicans, the constraints posed by national ambivalence about the war, along with GOP endorsement of an expanding the conflict means they won’t take it.

Ryan Keenan is the Outreach director for the National Security Network. Pat Barry is a researcher, also with the Network.

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Response from the author (Renard Sexton):
The basic argument that Ryan Keenan and Pat Barry make in their post is that because the Republican leadership in Congress and the RNC are supportive of expansion and escalation of the Afghanistan war, it is “difficult to see where GOP challengers could make hay from opposing the war, without bucking what appears to be a consensus among their party’s leadership.”

Indeed, I argued in my Friday article that anti-incumbent “challengers should jump on [Afghanistan] in a big way.”

The problem with Keenan and Barry’s argument, while perhaps exactly right in a 2004 context or earlier, is that the American right is currently heavily factionalized, a point I explored in detail on Friday.

Republicans in Congress, particularly among the Republican leadership, are generally quite hawkish, with a few exceptions like Ron Paul or Dick Lugar. However, as it has been widely discussed, the energized portion of the conservative electorate is not the “mainstream” Republican leadership, but in fact the tea party activists, some social conservatives and other more populist movements. In addition, individual GOP politicians, an example being Jim DeMint’s “Senate Conservatives” PAC, are making big pushes to support particular candidates that may or may not line up with the GOP leadership’s vision.

Bottom line is, the GOP leadership, which is quite discredited even among Republicans, will indeed likely set a “threshold” on the Afghanistan issue, including nominating a particular view on the issues as the standard party line. But what we have learned since the 2008 election is that many moderate and conservative voters in the country are skeptical of the GOP’s ability to make these judgments, and many challenger candidates on the right are not willing to accept these party decisions as gospel.

Indeed, rejecting the positions of an unpopular national party’s leadership only bolsters the anti-establishment and outsider credentials of a libertarian, tea-party activist or socially hard conservative candidate. Similarly, some right-leaning moderates that feel marginalized or alienated by the GOP leadership or the tea-party activists may be turned off by the lack of coherence and sit out the election.

In conclusion, while the Keenan and Barry argument has some important elements — for example that going against the GOP leadership excludes you from a pretty hefty pot of campaign money and some inherent legitimacy — the fact is that the Republican Party does not have the political weight that it did in the last couple of elections. If voters lash out against Democrats, it is undoubtedly because of frustration with the Obama Adminstration and congressional Democrats, rather than endorsing an exciting new programme from Republicans.

Therefore, I remain dubious about the contention that Congressional challengers on the right will be forced to run in favor of a hawkish expansion of Afghanistan war. Instead, like in the special election in NY-23, some sort of mixture between running strong on generic “national security”, while either ignoring or condemning the specifics of the Afghanistan conflict, will work well for Republican challengers and some incumbents alike. For those against the war, as long as it does not undermine an otherwise “strong defense” stance, it should work well.


Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international affairs columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at sexton538@gmail.com

* Heather Hurlbert, Executive Director of NSN, suggested the debate; thanks to her for facilitating.

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