By all accounts, the war in Afghanistan was a non-issue in last week’s mid-term elections. As poll after poll has shown, the number one issue was jobs and the economy. Afghanistan ranked at or near the bottom of the list.
And yet, polling also shows that Americans are more optimistic about the direction of the economy than they are about the prospects of the war in Afghanistan. According to the most recent RBC Consumer Outlook Index, only 25 percent of Americans believe that the economy will get worse over the next year. Meanwhile, a vast majority of Americans (somewhere around 60 percent) believe that we are losing the war in Afghanistan.
If these numbers even come close to reflecting what Americans think, two things should have been true: the Democrats should have been able to convince voters to stick with their economic strategy and opponents of the war should have been able to convince voters to abandon the current strategy in Afghanistan.
But of course, neither of those things happened. Republicans succeeded in turning the electorate against the administration’s economic agenda and supporters of the war succeeded in keeping Afghanistan off the table altogether. The existence of a double-standard could not be more clear.
As we wallow in the post-election depression, we might stop for a moment and play a little what-if exercise. What if the same standard that was applied to the economy in this election were applied to the war in Afghanistan?
First, of course, there would have been a discussion of the war’s cost and its contribution to the soaring deficit. Between 2003 and 2008, the deficit went from $6.4 trillion to $10 trillion. Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes have shown that at least a quarter of that increase came directly from the war in Iraq. Currently, the U.S. is spending $3 billion dollars a week on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stiglitz and Bilmes estimate the total cost of these wars, including medical care for veterans, will be between 4 and 6 trillion dollars. These numbers make the bank bailout, estimated at $350 billion (most of which has already been recovered), and Obama’s recent stimulus, which was trimmed to just $34 billion, look like pocket change.
Secondly, there would have been a backlash at the call for patience in seeing the war through. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell told voters that Obama and the Democrats in Congress had two whole years to turn the economy around. Now, they said, it’s time for a change. Imagine if they had applied the same logic to Afghanistan—which entered its ninth year one month before the election. Even if one concedes that the strategy changed under Obama, that would still be two years. If two years is long enough for a referendum on the economy, why isn’t it long enough for a referendum on a war?
Last but not least, there would have been a backlash against Obama’s war. The Republicans and Tea Partiers succeeded in making voters believe that Obama had single-handedly undermined their freedoms. Despite the fact that the health care and stimulus bills passed by the administration were products of compromise with the insurance companies and financial institutions, Republicans spoke of Obamacare, Obamanomics, and Obamunization. As general-in-chief, Obama had more power to shape the war in Afghanistan than he did healthcare or the economy.
What if the president’s opponents had expressed the same vehemence against Obama’s war as they did against the administration’s other policies?
Had even one of these things happened, I would be willing to credit the Republicans with fostering a real debate about the war, something that, up to this point, the Democrats have utterly failed to do.