Remember last winter, when liberals were complaining that Barack Obama had kept Bush family consigliere Robert Gates as his secretary of Defense and named a John McCain buddy, General James Jones, as his National Security Adviser? They're not complaining now. Today, Gates and Jones are MoveOn's best friends, because they provide the political cover that Obama needs to reject General Stanley McChrystal's call for more troops in Afghanistan. Imagine if Richard Danzig was Defense secretary and Susan Rice was NSC adviser, as many had expected. Obama would have never dared send them out to publicly slap down McChrystal, as both Gates and Jones have done. With liberal civilians in key posts, Obama’s administration would have appeared more dovish, which, ironically, would have made it harder for Obama to actually do the dovish thing.
But as shrewd as Obama has been about the politics of national security, his showdown with McChrystal still offers the GOP its best chance so far of getting up off the mat. It's worth remembering that the last time the Republican Party was in this bad a shape, in the early 1950s, two generals helped resuscitate it. The first was Douglas MacArthur, who in 1951 accused President Harry Truman of appeasement for scaling back America's objectives in Korea. The confrontation cost MacArthur his job, but it cost Truman his popularity. In the almost two years that Truman served as president after firing MacArthur, his approval rating never reached 40 percent.
It's worth remembering that the last time the Republican Party was in this bad a shape, in the early 1950s, two generals helped resuscitate it.
There’s another analogy, however, that should worry Democrats even more: Not between General MacArthur and General McChrystal, but between General Dwight Eisenhower and General David Petraeus. Pundits have mused about the Eisenhower-Petraeus comparison before, but the Afghanistan slugfest gives it new relevance. In the late Truman years, MacArthur, Joseph McCarthy, and the rest of the Republican right wing were a bit like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck today. They succeeded in bloodying the Democrats and scaring the country about overseas threats. But their overseas warmongering and domestic radicalism made them too extreme to ever win national office themselves.
Ike was different. He exploited the right’s hysteria, and yet sailed above it at the same time. He refused to condemn McCarthy, and implied that he too believed that Truman’s containment policies constituted appeasement, but he maintained his calm, soothing tone. As a war hero who stood apart from the partisan brawling around him, he retained a personal brand far stronger than either party’s.
As personalities, the syntax-mangling Ike and the self-consciously intellectual David Petraeus don't have much in common. But politically, they're in a parallel position. Today's GOP has a right-wing base that can damage Obama, but none of its favorites have a prayer of winning the White House. The reason is that just like the Republican right of the early 1950s, which kept insisting that the New Deal constituted socialism (or fascism), today’s conservative activists have not accommodated themselves to some basic shifts in public mood. Over the past couple of decades, the American people have grown more pro-environment, more culturally tolerant, and more suspicious of the unregulated free market, and yet the Republican Party has responded with a series of litmus tests for its presidential candidates that represent the political equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling "la la la, I can't hear you."
But this can't continue forever. After another presidential election loss or two, powerful forces within the GOP will begin looking for a candidate who doesn't have to kowtow to the party's activist base. They'll need someone with enough personal appeal to avoid the culture war food-fights that obsess the Republican base, someone who exudes moral traditionalism and fiscal prudence without appearing fanatical or intolerant. Such obfuscation won’t satisfy the GOP’s hard-right core, of course, but John McCain—another soldier-turned-pol—has already shown that the right’s stranglehold on the nominating process can be broken. Like McCain in 2008, Petraeus could largely skip the Iowa caucuses, which evangelicals dominate, and instead focus on New Hampshire, where independents can vote. In both 2000 and 2008, it was New Hampshire that boosted McCain, and New Hampshire, as it turns out, is the closest thing Petraeus has to a home state. From there it would be on to South Carolina, where military pedigrees go a long way.
• Mark McKinnon on Petraeus’ Chances All this is wildly speculative, of course. But there's a political logic to it: Parties that have grown narrow and extreme tend to spiral downward until they nominate someone who is not beholden to their narrow, extreme base. That person has to be so popular that he or she can defy the normal rules about how candidates get nominated. Right now, David Petraeus is the only Republican who fits the bill. In the weeks ahead, McChrystal may become a conservative folk hero for opposing Obama on Afghanistan. But for Democrats looking toward 2012 and 2016, it’s Petraeus who represents the real threat.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is a professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.