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June 19, 2014 5:20 PM Role Reversal on Foreign Policy?

By Ed Kilgore

Watching the Iraq Hawks strut their stuff on TV this week, Ross Douthat has a counter-intuitive suggestion about how foreign policy issues might play out in 2016. He mention the theory that with HRC as the putative Democratic nominee, the whole landscape could get hawker, but:

What’s interesting about this back-to-2004 possibility, though, is how poorly it fits with the state of public opinion at the moment. The country has understandably soured on this president’s foreign policy stewardship, but I’ve seen no polling data to indicate that the post-Bush, “let’s mind our own business” trend is substantially reversing. Anecdotally at least, the return of right-wing interventionism looks to me more like an elite phenomenon than a mass shift: The hawks are having a renaissance on op-ed pages and in newspaper profiles, but when Dick Cheney goes on Megyn Kelly’s show he’s greeted with questions that he would simply not have encountered on Fox News a decade back, and I’m willing to bet that more potential G.O.P. primary voters will be influenced by Glenn Beck’s mea culpa on the Iraq War than will read a single word by Robert Kagan. And then on the Democratic side, it’s hard to imagine that more than a vanishingly-small percentage of liberal partisans now believe that Obama was wrong to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq, or would say, if asked, that they want a more militarily-aggressive posture from his successor.

A public opinion landscape that’s already more favorable to Rand Paul than any we might have expected a few years ago could get even more favorable, Douthat guesses, if the natural polarizing tendency makes GOPers get dovish:

[I]f it’s clear that the next Democratic nominee will be a liberal interventionist (one blessed by neoconservatives, at that!), the partisan, “whatever the Democrats are for I’m against” impulse among G.O.P. voters won’t necessarily make a maximally hawkish line seem as compelling as it would if Obama were on the ballot a third time. (Recall that George W. Bush’s “humble foreign policy” was intended, in part, to make a contrast with the interventionism of Bill Clinton and Al Gore.) And then second, if Hillary faces only token opposition, the public’s anti-interventionist inclinations could end up finding a different outlet — in the form of higher pro-Paul turnout in primaries where independents and Democrats can cast a vote.

Anything’s possible, of course, but I’m not buying the role-reversal hypothesis. It’s not like HRC is frothing for boots on the ground in Iraq or a war with Iran like the GOP hawks incongruously tend to do. And in the past (unless you go back to the 1930s), GOP opposition to Democratic military interventionism is usually offset by other forms of truculence (sure, in 2000 Bush talk about “humility,” but also promised that “help is on the way” to the military in terms of more boys with more toys).

You can come up with three-cushion-shot scenarios all you want (Douthat admits he is “just spitballing”). But I’d say the recent preoccupation of Republicans with Obama’s foreign policy positions and the generally higher profile of international issues is very bad news for Rand Paul. His path to the nomination, which is very narrow indeed, involves becoming just orthodox enough on foreign policy issues in a domestic-policy-dominated landscape that “non-interventionism” isn’t fatal. Maybe, as Douthat says, GOP hawkery is predominately an elite matter, but elites do matter, and the Republican “base” remains more bellicose than Democrats even if it’s less bellicose than, say, John Bolton. And partisanship remains a very powerful force. So the idea, if that’s what it is, that in October 2016 antiwar civil libertarians and warmongering neocons could all be swing voters agonizing about whether to vote for Rand Paul or for Hillary Clinton, strikes me as very far-fetched.

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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