The rise of Joni Ernst — and the return of the Bush-era GOP
The anti-Bush backlash is over, and the hawks are flying high again
Mother. Soldier. Conservative. Senator?
Republican Joni Ernst has consistently cast herself as the first three during her heated Senate race in Iowa against Democrat Bruce Braley. And with Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight giving Ernst a 70 percent chance of winning tonight, adding senator to the list seems like a good bet.
And here's the big lesson: Ernst's rise in the GOP is a signal that the backlash against George W. Bush, both inside and outside the Republican Party, is ending.
As Patrick Caldwell of Mother Jones has highlighted, Ernst has made Braley's promises to defund the Iraq War a major point in her campaign. Not so long ago, Braley's position would have been quite popular. Indeed, his entire political career is partly a function of the last decade's anti-Bush sentiment. He won his House seat in the 2006's "thumpin'" of Bush and congressional Republicans. And he was hardly alone. Even the Republican Party seemed to be running away from Bush for the past few years. More libertarian voices, like Rand Paul and Justin Amash, rose up to challenge the crumbling foreign policy consensus of the Bush-era GOP. A number of Republican realists began backing away from that policy altogether. The Tea Party seemed like a conscious re-branding of the populist conservative movement that wanted to chuck not just Obama, but the Bush legacy of military misadventures and bailouts and economic failure.
Just eight years after that 2006 electoral shake-up, we live in a very different political world.
Ernst has made several campaign appearances with Lindsay Graham, one of the most high-flying hawks in the party, and attacked her opponent as someone who "voted twice to defund our men and women as they were serving in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan." After a summer of news cycles featuring the gruesome beheadings of American journalists by ISIS, the American people are in favor of greater involvement in Iraq, not less. And Ernst has slammed Obama for a lack of direction on the emerging Islamic State.
Ernst is not the only Bush-era throwback in the election. Cory Gardner, who is running close to Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado, has vowed not to cut funding or support from military intervention in the Middle East, saying, "It is important that we do not leave a region until it is secure." Tom Cotton, running for the Senate from Arkansas, is, like Ernst, a veteran who supports a more hawkish foreign policy than Obama and is willing to make noise about it.
Elise Stefanik, who may become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, is running for a congressional seat for NY-21, and is a Harvard grad who cast her first vote for Bush's re-election. As a young woman, she worked with the Foreign Policy Initiative, a new group used by neoconservatives as a post-'thumpin' rebrand in the age of Obama.
The election may have real consequences for foreign policy, as the deadline for negotiations on an Iranian nuclear deal comes in just a few weeks. These throwback Republicans do not agree with a more libertarian or non-interventionist re-think of the GOP after the Bush presidency. If anything, they are likely to see the drawdown in Iraq after the surge as part of the ongoing problems in the region. They will pick fights with Obama over Israel now that the administration has made its displeasure with the government of the Jewish state so obvious and public. In many ways, this revival of GOP hawkishness is an attempt to re-run the 2004 campaign against John Kerry: They portray their opponents as weak on defense, and not fully committed to the national interest abroad.
If you believed, as I once did, that the Iraq War and the last years of the Bush presidency would change the GOP for decades to come, a Joni Ernst victory will highlight just how naive it was to think so.