President Johnson seemed to have started a war he couldn't win or even end. It split his party and transformed the American left; until then, labor muscle and social-democratic brains were the left's principal organs. They tended to support the war and oppose the cultural upheavals that coincided with it -- positions diametrically opposite those of the student movement and nascent New Left.
Ideology aside, McCarthy argues that wartime experience itself discredits ideology. "There were concrete connections between the conflict abroad and increasingly radical social movements at home," he writes, including increased alienation among blacks who questioned the national cause amid race riots and increased drug use among soldiers in general. Most importantly, civilians reacted, especially the young, against the war as the product of a particular political (and moral?) culture that they repudiated. In sum, "the war and its failures put the lie to everything."
Republicans took advantage of a "Democratic war" while the New Left failed to take full advantage of public discontent. Rather, Republicans from Nixon through Reagan exploited a patriotic reaction against the New Left -- but McCarthy stresses that the GOP cinched its grip on power by not living up to its own warmongering stereotype.
Instead the Republican Party, for all its anti-Communist rhetoric, adopted a conflict-averse Realpolitik exemplified by Nixon's opening to China and Reagan's negotiations with Gorbachev -- maneuvers that cemented the GOP's reputation for adult leadership among centrist voters. The long-remembered excesses of the New Left and the reality-based policies -- especially foreign policy -- of the Republican Party reduced Democrats to the role of half-party for almost a quarter of a century.
Republican hegemony depended on its image of competent management of foreign relations in McCarthy's account. That this didn't guarantee victories, however, may be proven by the defeat in 1992 of George H.W. Bush, who may have been the GOP's most convincing poster boy for foreign-policy competence. McCarthy implicitly attributes this to the diminishing relevance of Vietnam-era culture wars by the time of Bill Clinton; Democrats no longer suffered so much from seeming unpatriotic, despite efforts at the time to red-bait Clinton. But just as Clinton's supporters then said, "It's the economy, stupid!" so we should take McCarthy's account of recent Republican decline with some salt. He wants to blame it on the War on Terror, as you might expect from the leading anti-war conservative journal. Chronologically he may have a point, since the Democrats reclaimed Congress in 2006, before the economy really nosedived. His main point is that the war cost Republicans their reputation for competence in foreign affairs. He also argues that the 21st century Republican party was as ill-equipped as the 1960s Democratic party to deal with the contradictions of its commitment to war.
The raw numbers aren't similar -- the antiwar right is not as numerous as the antiwar left once was -- but the philosophical depth of the divide is as great. And it's a generation gap. [Baby] Boomer Republicans are still fighting old wars ... Yet even the younger evangelicals -- let alone Ron Paul's youthful supporters and the neo-traditionalist 'crunchy cons' -- don't buy it. The GOP never learned to talk to the post-Vietnam generation in the first place; over the last decade, it compounded the problem by launching wars that, far from resolving the unfinished business of the Vietnam era, only made clear that those who are refighting the conflicts of that time are oblivious to today's realities.
By analogy with the Vietnam experience, Republican incompetence in wartime discredits the whole party agenda. "The party and the ideology soaked into it have lost their reputation for competence, and they've lost the emotional resonances that come with being the party of America: victory, prosperity, normality." McCarthy fears that the GOP will be scarred by the era and end up identified for at least a generation with "resentment, recession and insecurity." It can't depend on culture war as a rallying point anymore, since fewer people embrace pre-1960s traditional values and the popular reaction against this war hasn't been as abrasively countercultural as the Vietnam-era opposition. If anything, McCarthy may give President Obama too much credit for "keeping the country out of quagmires," though he notes that Obama left Iraq "reluctantly." I suspect that many Americans believe us still embedded in a quagmire that transcends national borders, continuing in Afghanistan if not in parts unknown. That perception may help explain dissatisfaction with both major parties today, but McCarthy's account still underplays the role of domestic economic factors in shaping people's political attitudes. There's some truth here, but not the whole truth -- and that means that, like it or not, the Republican situation isn't as hopeless as McCarthy assumes.
* * *
McCarthy's original article isn't available online, but he posted a follow-up piece on the Conservative website, going into more detail on how countercultural antiwar protests can be counterproductive and offering some objective advice to the antiwar left. The article and the reader comments are worth a look.