Patrick Ruffini, the very smart GOP web guru who's worked for George W. Bush, the RNC, and Rudy Giuliani, gives an unsurprising plug to Nebraska AG Jon Bruning and his primary campaign against Chuck Hagel. And then he makes this observation:
Bruning, the state's popular Attorney General, would have a better chance in the fall than Hagel, who has forever alienated the party's base.
Forever alienated? Let's get to that later. Ruffini asserts that Hagel could lose the general election because the Republican base wouldn't turn out for him and "ask Chafee and DeWine whether you can win without the base once Democrats smell blood." For evidence he links this poll of Nebraska voters:
51 percent of Nebraskans believe Bush's surge of additional troops into Iraq is the wrong approach compared to a phased withdrawal of U.S. soldiers; 54 percent of Republicans side with the president while 35 percent say it's time to begin pulling out.
So a majority of Nebraska voters oppose the Iraq surge, which Bruning supports and Hagel opposes. It certainly seems, from that evidence, like Hagel would be the stronger candidate in November 2008 while Bruning would be vulnerable to a Democrat who wants out of Iraq. Ruffini argues that Bruning's approval numbers are higher (61 percent to Hagel's 51 percent) and the base would be more motivated for Bruning. But if the GOP candidate's #1 issue in the Fall is "Iraq forever!" and the war is still massively unpopular, how does Bruning become the stronger candidate?
Back to that "forever alienated" thing. Ten, twenty years from now, what is the GOP base going to think of Bush and the Iraq War? One possibility: They will think Bush was a misunderstood martyr-genius and the Iraq War was a brilliant, world-changing plan that would have worked if liberals and paleoconservatives hadn't stabbed Bush in the back. That's the sentiment you already read on some pro-war blogs. It might actually become Republican dogma, in which case, yes, someone like Hagel will be as unacceptable to Republicans as someone like Orval Faubus is to Democrats. That's a pretty dark future for the GOP, though. And not one where it's the majority party.
By the way, a successful anti-Hagel campaign has the potential to be far, far worse for Republicans than the Lamont-Lieberman situation was for Democrats. If Hagel is purged from the party he can't launch a Connecticut for Lieberman-style Potemkin party. What he could do is… run for president as an independent, something he has repeatedly said he's interested in doing. How does the GOP win in 2008 if they nominate a candidate not 100 percent suitable for the base (read: any of the frontrunners) and Hagel gets on the ballot to split the anti-Democrat vote? It doesn't. It loses the election.