Challenger Joe McLaughlin was half right in describing the stakes of the North Carolina 3rd Congressional District’s Republican primary: It was, as he told Congressional Quarterly, about the future of the Republican Party in his congressional district and beyond. But Congressman Walter Jones’s nearly 20-point margin of victory doesn’t signal the end of the party. It points the way out of the quagmire that is Iraq, both for the country and the GOP.
Let’s recap: Walter Jones, a fine Southern gentleman, like many conservatives initially supported the Iraq War out of patriotic instinct. He voted to authorize the use of force and helped lead the crusade to designate French fried potatoes “freedom fries” on congressional menus to protest France’s opposition to the war. But unlike the vast majority of his Republican congressional colleagues, Jones was willing to rethink his position once the consequences—and the dubious prewar intelligence—became apparent. By 2005, he had emerged as one of the most passionate antiwar voices in Congress.
Because of his shift on the war, Jones—one of the most conservative members of Congress and a 1994 Contract with America signer—was slandered as a “liberal.” Yet from Joe McLaughlin’s own campaign website, Jones scored a perfect 100 rating from the American Conservative Union four times and twice missed a perfect score by just one vote. His lifetime ACU rating is 91.9 percent.
Of course, Jones’s conservative critics argue that it wasn’t just about Iraq. Jones voted for a Democratic farm bill that offset increased food-stamp spending with higher taxes on some U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations, which was considered a violation of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge (though Jones opposed the tax provision and McLaughlin voted to raise taxes as Onslow county commissioner). He didn’t pledge to sustain presidential vetoes of Democratic spending bills. Jones also received low marks from the Club for Growth on its anti-pork report card.
Some of these positions were ill advised. The farm bill was a boondoggle even without the added insult of the tax hike. President Bush should be encouraged to occasionally veto excessive spending bills, something he failed to do once when his GOP cronies controlled Congress. Grover Norquist was probably right to tell The Hill, “[Jones] was so mad at Bush that he couldn”t see straight.” Would that other Republicans get angry with the president.
Other criticisms of Jones are bogus. Jones voted for a Democratic agriculture appropriation without language prohibiting taxpayer benefits for illegal immigrants. But Jones has consistently opposed such benefits throughout his career and was to the right of his primary opponent on immigration. Jones was a stalwart in the fight against amnesty and has excellent ratings from immigration-restrictionist groups.
More importantly, as Marcus Epstein pointed out on this webzine, Jones was a staunch fiscal conservative on the votes that really mattered. He was one of just 25 Republicans to oppose the 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit, which added nearly $12 trillion in unfunded liabilities to the teetering entitlement program—a far bigger expansion of the federal government than the appropriations and earmarks Jones was attacked for supporting. He was also part of the small band of Republicans who voted against No Child Left Behind, a minority position even among the reputedly conservative Republican Study Committee.
The fact is, given Jones’s record on taxes, spending, pro-life issues, and immigration, without the war a primary challenge based on his minor economic transgressions would have been laughable. Jones’s votes on Iraq and efforts to avoid war with Iran were the main reasons for Washington conservative interest in his primary challenger (though Jones’s votes to impeach the vice president surely peaked some interest as well).
Jones’s victory marks a major shift in fortunes for beleaguered antiwar Republicans. Since 2002, the GOP’s dissenters on the Iraq war haven’t done noticeably better at the polls than their pro-war colleagues. Three antiwar Republicans were defeated in the 2006 elections. Hawks targeted most of the remainder in primaries, defeating Maryland Congressman Wayne Gilchrest and probably hastening Sen. Chuck Hagel’s retirement.
In the end, the war and other Bush missteps left the Republican Party too weak to purge Jones. His primary challenger wasn’t able to get the money that once seemed possible to finance his campaign. The powers that be decided, given their trouble holding onto House seats, it was better to have a well-funded incumbent running in North Carolina’s 3rd District.
Now Jones isn’t the only antiwar Republican running for Congress from North Carolina. Ron Paul Republican B.J. Lawson overwhelmingly won his primary in the 4th District. And incumbent Congressman Howard Coble is also on record as saying we should get out of Iraq, though he rarely votes that way. Perhaps the Jones and Lawson results will encourage him.
Antiwar conservatives are a long way from having more than token representation within the Republican Party. But Walter Jones’s primary win is a positive sign for a movement that has all too rarely tasted victory.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.