The Republican civil war has so many factions, you need a scorecard to sort them out — tea partyers versus the establishment; conservatives versus moderates; gubernatorial wing versus congressional wing; religious rightists versus tolerants — and even the despairing Republican National Committee, in its newly released autopsy of the ‘12 campaign, says the party is “driving around in circles on an ideological cul de sac.”
But surely the most significant fight is between the “stale and moss-covered” neoconservatives and the libertarian “wacko birds.”
For more than half a century, Republicans have championed a muscular foreign policy, a robust military interventionism. This ethos has been embedded in the party brand since the Dwight Eisenhower era, it underpinned the party’s anti-communist image, and, 10 years ago, it compelled the neoconservatives to blunder into Iraq. This ethos still has many adherents, but now there’s a new player in town, and he’s talking aim at the traditional Republican consensus.
I’m referring, of course, to Rand Paul.
As evidenced by his gig last Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference — where he strode on stage in jeans, to the accompaniment of music by Metallica — the freshman libertarian senator is clearly groovy. Groovy for a conservative confab, anyway. The young ‘uns in the audience went wild for him. They waved “Stand With Rand” signs, a portent of what we might see in the ‘16 Republican primaries, and they loved it when he sneered at the likes of John McCain: “The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered — I don’t think we need to name any names, do we?” That was payback for McCain’s characterization of Paul and other intervention-averse conservatives as “wacko birds.”
Name-calling aside, this is important stuff. Michael Gerson, who served as George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter, was right the other day when he predicted that a Paul presidential candidacy would trigger “a lively debate on foreign policy fundamentals.” If my history is correct, that hasn’t happened since 1952, when Eisenhower faced off in the Republican intramurals against Robert A. Taft, a conservative leader and isolationist who opposed America’s membership in NATO.
Rand Paul is a throwback to that old GOP mindset. He broadly argues for a full American withdrawal from Afghanistan and a serious reduction in the American military presence abroad. He contends that isolationism should be a major feature of what he calls “the new GOP.”
Hence the intramural Republican tensions. There are still plenty of neoconservatives, interventionists, and Iraq war apologists who think that Paul’s isolationist ethos would be ruinous for the party.
Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, is one of them. Over the weekend, he called Paul a “McGovernite,” which, in GOP parlance, is a slur one notch above pedophile. Kristol said that “the GOP of old, the GOP of Nixon, Reagan, and Bush, knew that while we may not be interested in war, our enemies remain interested in us.” Meanwhile, A freshman congressman named Tom Cotton took a swipe at Paul during CPAC: “We’re fighting ... a war against radical Islam and jihad...Do we have the will to win the war? Our enemies certainly have the will.”
Even if Paul does not run for president (he’s reportedly gearing up), his vocal isolationism might serve a useful purpose. If he can prompt an honest intramural debate about the limits of interventionism, if he can force Republicans to finally own up to the bloody and costly mess they made in Iraq, perhaps the party can recalibrate for the future — interventionism, minus the foolish adventurism. But if Paul succeeds all to well in his argument for a reduced American commitment abroad, the GOP risks ceding the foreign policy center to the Democrats — just as it did in 2012, thanks to the feckless Mitt Romney. Rest assured, Democrats everywhere are hoping that the other party Stands With Rand.
And bet on this, going forward: Worried interventionist Republicans will target Paul in terms far stronger than “wacko bird.”
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.