In October 2006, the month before the midterm elections, 106 American soldiers lost their lives in Iraq. At that point, the Sunni and Sh'ite populations appeared embroiled in a full-scale civil war. On the home front, the conflict grew increasingly unpopular.
Voters, angry over the direction of the war, decided to punish the party and handed congressional Republicans a historic defeat; they would no longer control the House and Senate.
By contrast, so far this month, seven American soldiers have died in Iraq. At least for the moment, the almost-apocalyptic scenario that seemed imminent two years ago appears to have been replaced by something approaching a fragile calm, as the United States and the Iraqi government continue to engage in difficult negotiations that would keep U.S. Forces in the country for another three years.
But few expect the Republican party and John McCain — who was, perhaps, the chief proponent of the surge strategy — to have reap much political benefit from the military reversal of fortune.
In fact, in terms of presidential politics, perhaps the most astounding thing about Iraq is that it went from being, perhaps, the pre-eminent issue at the outset of the campaign last year to one that is barely registering in the closing weeks. If anything, Afghanistan has received more political attention than in years: Democrats have argued that the Bush administration has botched the job there.
Clearly, the economy has sucked the political oxygen out of almost every other issue. In truth, the Iraq war had been steadily receiving less attention on the campaign trail for months. Throughout the summer, gas prices and energy dominated the debate, but as the price of crude oil has fallen, that issue, too, has receded somewhat.
"The conventional wisdom was that Sen. McCain would benefit if the topic was the Iraq war. I was never sure about that," said U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who was in Philadelphia stumping for Barack Obama. Feingold argued that the majority of the American people agreed with Obama that it had been a mistake to invade Iraq.
To be sure, Iraq has shown up in debates, and the candidates have engaged in a back-and-forth over who has proved more prescient: Obama for opposing the invasion or McCain for calling for the surge?
According to Jeff Jubelirer, a Republican political analyst based in Center City, the fact that the economy has shifted attention from foreign policy has dealt a devastating blow to the Arizona senator's presidential hopes.
"It's hurt more than anything else, period," said Jubelirer. "On foreign policy, McCain [had] been seen as the stronger candidate."
Jubelirer said that into the late summer, national polls showed that the race was essentially even. As the stock market began to plunge, McCain's numbers in some key states began to falter.
"There is nothing new about the fact that, at the end of the day, people want bread on their table and want to be employed. It cuts through Iraq and it cuts through Iran," said Gilbert Kahn, a professor of political science at Kean University in New Jersey. "When life is good, people look at other issues. When people are concerned, the bottom line is the economy."
William Rosenberg, professor of political science at Drexel University, asserted that Iraq was never a great issue for McCain, because Americans had simply grown tired of the conflict and no longer supported extended troop deployment there. Even before the financial crisis, the cost of the war was beginning to bother many Americans, even as casualty reports had stopped dominating the nightly news.
"They were trying to bet on a hand that's not so good, rather than having a really good hand," said Rosenberg. "You are dealing with an unpopular, protracted war with no real end in sight. I think that's what took a lot of the wind out of the sails of the Republicans."
Do Americans simply not care a great deal about what happens overseas, unless bad things are happening to Americans there?
Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs in Washington, D.C., doesn't think so. He argued that Americans do, indeed, have a sense of the numerous threats posed in regions around the globe, but he said that it's understandable voters would look first to pocketbook issues.
JINSA is a nonpartisan group, but it is considered hawkish on foreign policy, and its chairman, Mark Broxmeyer, also chairs John McCain's Jewish Advisory Coalition.
"The truth is that the Iraq war has been going better. We can't come home from Iraq without a victory and we are well on our way to getting it," said Neumann. "The situation in Afghanistan is much more volatile and so it is much more difficult. I think we need to finish the job in Iraq and then focus on Afghanistan."