It’s often said that Republicans are the Daddy Party in American politics, while the Democrats stand in for Mom. Mom is about putting nice meals on the table, pushing us to do well in school and teaching us to be kind to other kids; Dad worries about the budget, enforces the rules, teaches us to be self reliant, and is the one you look to when bullies or criminals threaten.
Naturally in these enlightened times we reject all such sexist rhetoric; we are all Coneheads now with interchangeable, unisex parental units instead of mothers and fathers. Still, the old description has some merit, and Moms nationally do lean towards the Democrats, while Dads tend to go GOP.
Our problem these days is that neither parent is really doing its job. Like a couple of addled narcissists too busy with midlife crises to tend to the kids, both parties are falling down on the job. The Mommy Party has messed up the schools, the pensions, the post office, healthcare and local government, but unless you think the Iraq War was a strategic masterstroke and brilliantly executed to boot, the Bush administration often looked more like Homer Simpson than John Wayne.
At Via Meadia we keep a close eye on the mess in Mom’s kitchen; it’s a time of real crisis. The traditional methods and institutions of the 20th century progressive state are less and less able to deliver what people need in the contemporary world, and the wholesale renovation and reform of the American social model is an urgent and inescapable task.
Generally speaking, the Republicans are doing some interesting things on the Mommy side these days. With fewer ties to the vested interests that want to fight change in domestic institutions, the Republicans have led the way on some promising education initiatives and government reforms. There’s something of an intellectual ferment on the GOP side these days as politicians and wonks hunt around for ideas that might reduce the “Mom gap” and make voters trust Republicans more on some domestic governance issues. It’s a start, though much more needs to be done.
But where Republicans are falling down on the job these days seems to be in the realm of foreign policy – a traditional GOP strength. Between the annual CPAC meeting and the intra-party struggle over Senator Rand Paul’s drone filibuster, it’s clear that the GOP has some big unresolved questions to ponder.
Rand Paul’s dramatic 13-hour filibuster of the Brennan nomination, the attacks on his position from established Republican leaders like Senator John McCain, and the conservative applause Sen. Paul received afterward had many talking about a sea change in Republican foreign policy — and that was before he won the CPAC straw poll. Were the isolationists and America-Firsters coming back from the margins, led by the younger and more telegenic Paul? Could Patrick Buchanan style thinking be returning to the mainstream of an anti-engagement, ignore-Israel Republican Party?
Not so fast, said writers like David Weigel, proclaiming that nothing much had in fact changed, and that the GOP establishment’s remained unflinching in its commitment to a strong national defense.
Ross Douthat disagreed in a recent column. Rand’s stand, he says, may not pave the way for Buchananism redux, but it opens up space for a broader debate over foreign policy within the Republican Party. Douthat elaborated on this argument in a smart blog post that’s worth your while:
None of this means that the entire party is about to tilt dramatically toward realism. But legitimizing, as Real Conservatives (TM), politicians who advocate restraint is a necessary precondition to broader policy change. Opportunism follows influence, and creates it — and right now Paul has more influence within his party than every other realist, paleoconservative and libertarian Republican of the last decade put together.
Very true. To see the influence at work, just have a look at a recent Charles Krauthammer op-ed, which as its final point endorses rewriting the 2001-vintage Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the resolution which gave the Executive very broad discretion in prosecuting the please-don’t-call-it-the-Global-War-On-Terror. Krauthammer’s preferred rewrite probably wouldn’t thrill dyed-in-the-wool Paulites, but it’s an unmistakeable sign that a discussion has begun and Paul has a seat at the table.
History, Israel, China and terror will probably keep a preponderance of the GOP faithful behind a strong, global foreign policy for some time to come, but Republican hawks have taken some heavy hits and may not have fully processed just how much trouble they are in. Outside the GOP, the people and the ideas held responsible for the Iraq war are widely disliked and distrusted; inside the party it is almost as bad.
Republican hawks haven’t yet fully come to terms with the internal damage to their brand during the Bush era. In part that’s because the party rallied around the president and the war during the critical post 2005 years. But hawks telling themselves it’s not so bad should be careful: grudging acquiescence is very far from hearty support.
When the Iraq War went pear shaped, many GOPers (and this Democrat) glumly went along with the policy because whatever they had come to believe about the administration’s decision making process, there was no point in losing a war in the Middle East just because Code Pink was unhappy. While the base stuck by George W. Bush during his courageous and successful surge in Iraq, nevertheless many people were appalled by the succession of, well, mistakes that marked so much of the war.
The hawkish wing of the GOP foreign policy world may not yet have fully realized just how politically damaging was the Bush administration’s post-WMD defense of the war as a humanitarian, democracy-building endeavor. Most of the American people, and especially most conservative grassroots Republicans, don’t really believe in Wilsonian wars. Poll after poll after poll shows that protecting human rights or building democracy overseas comes at the bottom of reasons Americans believe they should send troops overseas and the Jacksonians at the GOP base feel this as strongly as anyone.
Those feelings have hardened and deepened with the failures of the Arab Spring. The “big idea” at the heart of many neo-conservative arguments for a changed US policy in the Middle East, that once the autocracies fall the Arab world will be ready for modern democracy, has lost virtually all credibility among large swathes of the GOP base. To the extent they still support the idea of the Iraq War (and the war remains more popular among Republicans than among anyone else), it is because they connect it with the fight against terrorism rather than because they admire George Bush’s dogged effort to build a democracy on the banks of the Euphrates.
There has always been a crackpot-Jeffersonian element in the Republican Party, and in some ways it was strengthened when southern whites joined the GOP. The Ron Paul wing of the primary vote is echoing ideas that were more mainstream sixty years ago; the question now is whether the loss of neoconservative and internationalist prestige and authority has opened the door for the Paulites to seize the commanding heights of the GOP.
The fight against isolationism is only one of two battles the GOP foreign policy leadership has to fight, and it is probably the easier struggle. Much, much harder will be the struggle to re-establish the GOP as the country’s go-to political organization when dark clouds rise overseas. Some of this is about track record: Iraq and the associated tribulations of the Bush years loom very large in the minds of independent as well as Democratic voters.
It would be a serious mistake to underestimate the severity of the GOP’s foreign policy problem. If the struggle over the future of the GOP is seen by independents to be a battle between neocons and isolationists, the party will lose national support no matter which faction wins. Those are hard truths, but they are real: the country doesn’t want more of either George W. Bush or Ron Paul on foreign policy and until Republicans can develop a new and different vision of the way forward, they are unlikely to regain the high ground they once enjoyed on this issue.
I will return to this issue; those who think America needs to go back to the wisdom of an earlier time in foreign policy are as misguided as those who think the solution to our domestic problems lies in returning to either the Democratic utopia of the Great Society or the Republican, laisser faire utopia of William McKinley. The Republican Party (to say nothing of the Republic) urgently needs a future focused foreign policy discussion; until that happens, the Daddy Party will be fighting elections with one hand tied behind its back.