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April 14, 2014 12:26 PM The Real Republican “Civil War” Is Over Foreign Policy

By Ed Kilgore

As a regular objector to the idea that factional skirmishing in the GOP amounts to a “civil war,” I’ve tried to make it clear there’s an exception: Rand Paul’s views on foreign policy and national security represent a real and fundamental break from recent Republican tradition. All the “battles” over “social issues” (not positioning on them, but their relative prominence) or how and when to kill Obamacare or the details of various tax plans or how to talk about Medicare, are, when you look at them closely, almost invariably disagreements over strategy, tactics and rhetoric, not real ideological divisions. Perhaps the arguments over immigration policy rise to the level of a real difference of “principle,” but insofar as (1) GOP supporters of comprehensive immigration reform typically justify this position as a political necessity rather than a principled stance, and (2) comprehensive reform opponents have won the “war” for the time being, maybe that’s another strategy-and-tactics division as well.

But Paulite foreign policy has no mainstream GOP or movement-conservative antecedent since the Taft “isolationist” wing of the party lost decisively to the anticommunist wing shortly after World War II. Yes, there has always been a small “paleoconservative” faction largely limited to intellectuals (Pat Buchanan was the closest thing they had to a political leader), and an ongoing “realist/neocon” argument over—yes—foreign policy strategy, tactics and rhetoric. But Ron Paul brought a full-on objection to the underpinnings of conservative foreign policy into the presidential arena in 2012, and his son is now trying to make it respectable.

Last week Jonathan Chait penned an excellent column explaining how this has happened, and why tolerance for Paulite foreign policy may soon expire:

Paul has seized upon a moment of flux and confusion that is not uncommon for a party out of power. Republican anti-interventionism flowered briefly under the Clinton presidency, and a similar movement has sprung up under President Obama. Partisans on both sides distrust the use of power far more when they loathe the president who is using it. The drone debate displayed Paul under optimal conditions, when he could harness the fear coursing through the right — which had previously expressed itself in the form of such paranoid conceptions as death panels, FEMA camps, and feverish muttering about the abnegation of the Constitution — into the service of his foreign policy worldview.
At the same time, the Party’s ideological geography has not changed nearly as much as it may have appeared. Hawks remain firmly in control of the commanding heights. The neoconservatism of the Bush administration may have run aground in Iraq, but conservative discontent with Bush mostly dissolved into diffuse complaints about big government and overspending. The Republican candidates that have followed Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney, both ran as unapologetic hawks. (Romney titled his campaign biography No Apology.) The House Republican budget proposes a $483 billion increase in military spending over the next decade. Bush-era foreign-policymaking retains enough prestige within the Party that the cachet and intellectual tutelage of Don Rumsfeld is still in demand….

With Obama soon to leave the scene, and Rand Paul making a more serious bid for the presidency than his father’s, we will almost certainly see the advocates of a “Reagan” foreign policy reassert themselves. Like Chait, I do not think Paul’s viability as a candidate will survive this backlash, which will feed on a vast library of utterances by both Pauls in the very recent past.

[S]topping people like Paul from capturing the nomination is the reason Party Establishments exist.

That’s only the half of it. Most “Tea Party conservatives” do not favor the kind of major retrenchment of U.S. defense commitments or defense spending that is ever-present in Paul’s platform however much he tries to disguise it as criticism of Obama or of “incompetence” in foreign policy. Besides, there’s really nothing about Paul’s domestic policies that Tea Folk can’t find in other candidates, with the possible exception of his obsession with monetary policy (even there, as Ramesh Ponnuru acutely observed in 2012, the “mainstream” conservative position has moved very much in the Paulite direction). Rand Paul has probably reached his peak of respectability in the GOP, and will soon begin a long descent back towards the cult status of the old man. How far he falls may be the true test of his revisionist skill.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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