Stanley, I take your point that Republican candidates have to discuss Iraq (and Iran) as part and parcel of the argument that the GOP offers a more reliable defense of the nation against terrorism. They have to make this case and, if they do so effectively, then they may succeed either in persuading the voters to support them or in dragging the Democrats onto more sensible ground.
But that means they have to make the case effectively. In the two most recent debates the Republicans have been concentrating on really trivial aspects of the Iraq debate. Just how much does it matter if Romney hedged his bets slightly a year ago on the start of the surge? He supported it then. He supports it now. If the American public is to be brought round to the GOP on this issue, McCain, Huckabee, and Romney have got to support each other on the main essentials and disagree in amiable terms over secondary issues.
I wouldn’t make this argument if the candidates had real principled differences over this issue; I don’t make it to Ron Paul who is genuinely separated on the war from his conservative colleagues. But when they hardly differ on Iraq policy, it is the narcissm of small differences to focus on those points. It is also self-defeating. What will it profit McCain to persuade the world that he is the only Republican to have been solid on the surge a year ago if that also serves to persuade the world that Iraq is a lost cause supported only by a handful of McCainiacs?
Even if the Republican candidates could reach such a modus vivendi on Iraq and the surge, they would still be running uphill. Defending America in the war on terror can only be one element in a wider Republican package composed mainly of issues on which the party doesn’t start out at a disadvantage. Again they muffed this in the last two debates. They must learn to fight among themselves in a way that makes all of them–and the GOP–attractive to the American majority. Hillary and Obama did just that last night. Rocket science?–it used to be Reaganism 101.