This may seem like a no-brainer — of course the guy who’s been in charge for six years bears more responsibility for the current state of affairs than his predecessor — but for much of the public, Iraq is “Bush’s war” unto eternity. That’s part of the media fascination with asking Republican contenders whether they’d order the invasion in 2003 knowing then what we know now. Implicit in that question is the idea that the last six years of Iraqi history were fated to happen once Bush gave the order to go 12 years ago. Republicans own this issue and they must answer for it, even though Hillary Clinton is the only top-tier candidate in either party who actually had some say over whether the war happened.
As it turns out, though, Republicans don’t own this issue anymore.
Those race, gender, and party-ID gaps should all look familiar — they’re the same sort of splits you typically see on issues with that have been polarized ideologically, with men, whites, and Republicans tilting GOP and women, minorities, and Democrats tilting Dem. The age demographics are familiar too, with young adults blaming Bush 62/34 while the three older groups lean towards blaming Obama. But that’s the whole point: Thanks to Obama’s disastrous diplomatic disengagement from Iraq and his ineffective airstrike campaign against ISIS, this is now a mundane partisan issue instead of a “Bush’s war” fiasco for which Republicans exclusively must answer. (Independents, in fact, now blame Obama more than Bush.) That’s big news potentially for 2016, both generally, in how it suggests the public may be newly receptive to a Bush-style hawk who’ll vow to smash ISIS, and specifically for Jeb Bush, whose Iraq albatross now might not be quite as heavy as everyone thinks.
How’d we get from “Bush’s war” to Obama sharing the blame for the fall of Iraq? Pretty simple, really. Per CNN’s crosstabs, in May 2009, 52 percent said things were going very or moderately well for the U.S. in Iraq. Today, when ISIS is inserted into that question, just 38 percent say so. Last September, support for Obama’s handling of ISIS split along partisan lines at 45/49; today, with ISIS in control in Ramadi and threatening Baghdad, it’s 32/63. All of which is to say, starting when Obama took office and even for several years afterward, the public had come around to believing that Iraq was finally on the right track. In fact, Obama had come around to believing that Iraq was on the right track. Two weeks before the last American soldier left the country in December 2011, he gave a de facto victory speech at Fort Bragg. “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq,” he told the troops. “By battling and building block by block in Baghdad, by bringing tribes into the fold and partnering with the Iraqi army and police, you helped turn the tide toward peace.” In his rush to take credit for bringing the troops home by effectively declaring “mission accomplished,” he set the stage for the public to turn on him, not Bush, when everything fell apart later. And now they have. Congrats, champ. You earned it.
Speaking of former allies turning on Bush critics, here’s Hannity politely quizzing Rand Paul on why Rand thinks GOP hawks like Hannity “created ISIS” merely for wanting to address the threat more aggressively than Obama did.