War has polarized parties

Division over Iraq sharper than Vietnam

July 30, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON --No military conflict in modern times has divided Americans on partisan lines more than the war in Iraq, scholars and pollsters say - not even Vietnam. Those divisions are likely to intensify in what is expected to be a contentious fall election campaign.

The latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows what one expert describes as a continuing "chasm" between the way Republicans and Democrats see the war. Three-fourths of the Republicans, for example, said the United States did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq, while just 24 percent of the Democrats did. Independents are split down the middle.

"The present divisions are quite without precedent," said Ole R. Holsti, a professor of political science at Duke University and the author of Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy.

The Vietnam War caused a wrenching debate that echoes to this day and shaped both parties, but at the time, public opinion did not divide so starkly on party lines, experts say. The partisan divide on Iraq has fluctuated but endured across two intensely fought campaigns in which war and peace have figured heavily. Each party has its internal differences, especially on future strategy for Iraq. But the overall divide is a defining feature of the fall campaign.

The White House's top political advisers are advancing a strategy built around national security, arguing that Iraq is a central front in the battle against global terrorism and that opposition to the war is tantamount to "cutting and running" in a broader struggle to keep America safe.

After three years of conflict, Democrats argue that the Bush administration's policies in Iraq should not be equated with a stronger, safer America. Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, said recently, "Nearly everywhere you look - from the Middle East to Asia - America's enemies have been emboldened by the administration's mismanagement of Iraq."

The voters, at times, are even more impassioned. Rep. Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican and chairman of the International Relations Committee, said that voters, pro or con, were treating the war the way they treated the mention of Richard M. Nixon in the 1974 post-Watergate midterm campaign. "Nobody is tepid on this issue," said Hyde, who is planning to retire.

Many experts and members of both parties say they worry about the long-term consequences of such bitter partisan polarization and its effect on the long-standing tradition that foreign policy is built on bipartisan trust and consensus.

"The old idea that politics stops at the water's edge is no longer with us, and I think we've lost something as a result," said John C. Danforth, a former senator.

These divisions do not run across foreign policy. The latest poll shows no comparable partisan gap, for example, in attitudes toward the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. On Capitol Hill, even as lawmakers position themselves furiously over Iraq, they produce big bipartisan majorities on issues such as the nuclear deal with India or the resolution expressing support for Israel.

But compared with past conflicts - from Vietnam to the war in the Persian Gulf to Afghanistan - the war in Iraq evoked strong partisan passions from the start.

An analysis by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that the difference in the way Democrats and Republicans viewed the Vietnam War - specifically, whether sending American troops was a mistake - never exceeded 18 percentage points between 1966 and 1973.

In the most recent Times/CBS poll on Iraq, the partisan gap on a similar question was 50 percentage points.

The poll was based on telephone interviews conducted July 21 through July 25 with 1,127 adults and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

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