Subsequent elections will reveal whether this election is a harbinger of a new and chronic Republican weakness. For nearly two generations -- since the Democratic Party fractured over Vietnam in 1968 and nominated George McGovern in 1972 -- the Republican Party has benefited from a presumption of superior realism regarding the essential presidential competence, national security. Time -- actually, 2008 -- will tell if Iraq will do the kind of lingering damage to the Republican Party that was done by the Depression, which made the party suspect for a generation regarding the conduct of domestic policy.
The departure of Donald Rumsfeld, a remarkably swift ratification of the electorate's Tuesday roar, removes an impediment to the possibility of a modus vivendi between the president and the congressional majority. Rumsfeld's replacement, Robert Gates, by virtue of his service on the Iraq Study Group chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, is already immersed in the agonizing choices that must be made. And having been deputy national security adviser in 1991, Gates knows why the first President Bush declined to extend Operation Desert Storm beyond the liberation of Kuwait to regime change in Baghdad. Shortly after the war, the then secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, said why arguments for ``going to Baghdad'' had been "fallacious."
"Once you've got Baghdad, it's not clear what you do with it," he told The New York Times. "It's not clear what kind of government you would put in place of the one that's currently there now. Is it going to be a Shia regime, a Sunni regime or a Kurdish regime? Or one that tilts toward the Baathists, or one that tilts toward the Islamic fundamentalists? How much credibility is that government going to have if it's set up by the United States military when it's there? How long does the United States military have to stay to protect the people that sign on for that government, and what happens to it once we leave?"
Good questions, the answers to which we now know. Gates, who was there when the questions were asked, seems to be of the realist school, reluctant to engage in regime change as a prelude to nation-building. And we may hope that as director of the CIA he learned the most important thing a government can know -- what it is that it doesn't know. Such knowledge inoculates governments against irrational exuberance.