The Republican Party plans to pare down its presidential primary-season debates from 20 in 2012 to less than half that this go-around. No matter. The candidates, two of them at least, appear ready to drive the debate before any formal such event takes place.
“I think there’s a consistent theme here that every candidate should be asked,” Rand Paul told CNN’s audience this week, “and that is: Is it a go-ahead idea to go into the Middle East, topple governments, and hope something better rises out of the chaos? Because recent history seems to show that—you know what?—we’re not getting something better, we’re getting something worse.”
There’s something fundamentally conservative in the libertarian’s answer. When I interviewed the Students for a Democratic Society’s first president Al Haber for A Conservative History of the American Left, I asked him in his book-filled living room to define the motivating idea behind the Left: “What is the better world possible?” Rand Paul asks conservatives to consider the worse world possible.
Staking out a position at the other end of the Republican spectrum, Florida Senator Marco Rubio forcefully and articulately articulated the case for force in front of the Council on Foreign Relations. Saying “foreign policy is domestic policy,” Rubio argued: “We must recognize that our nation is a global leader not just because it has superior arms, but because it has superior aims. America is the first power in history motivated by a desire to expand freedom rather than its own territory.”
Rubio and Paul’s remarks ostensibly respond to the recent miscues of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who has offered several conflicting answers on whether he would have invaded Iraq. Each senator really engages the other rather than Bush.
The two youngish candidates, impressing on style and substance even if displaying conflicting styles and ideas, offer arguments against experience, albeit experience of two altogether different sorts.
Rubio’s rhetoric runs into the humbling experiences wrought from a bold nation-building campaign in the Middle East. Conversely, the modern Republican Party, always for increased military strength and increasingly hawkish, seems to offer an infertile ground for Paul to grow his candidacy.
Republicans intuitively grasp how results rarely match intentions in domestic programs. This lesson appears lost on foreign policy. Not learning from recent Middle Eastern interventions (from full-scale invasion to air support to material assistance) in Iraq, Libya, and Syria means repeating mistakes and birthing a world at odds with the one envisioned. Like Charlie Brown giving it another go at a field goal, Republicans seem always ready for another kick and never willing to ponder the reasons why they missed the last time—forever anticipating an Arab Spring instead of an ISIS Winter.
The reasons conservatives don’t like government intervention in the United States don’t carry over into objections to interventions abroad. The same skeptics who scoff at the idea of a government postman delivering the mail on time become starry-eyed idealists when discussing the notion of an invasion transforming half-a-world-away Muhammadans into Vermont-style town-meeting members.
So Paul faces a more formidable challenge than Rubio. Staking out a minority position within a big tent of candidates can work in the early caucuses and primaries. But when the field narrows, as his father discovered, his intense support may not broaden. And though it may be clear to independents that Iraq played as a major cause of the GOP losing control of the White House, true-believing Republicans, the type who disproportionately vote in primaries, tend to blame past defeats more on external factors rather than internal defects.
A restrained, cautious—one might say “conservative”—common sense used to be more common among conservatives. Surely the leaders conservatives profess to admire exhibited this trait.
George Washington’s “disinterested warnings of a parting friend” asked: “Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?” British Conservative Party pioneer Benjamin Disraeli pursued a winning policy of “splendid isolation.” Robert Taft, “Mr. Republican,” counseled his countrymen to “never forget what an awful catastrophe war is.” Even Ronald Reagan, in cutting losses in Lebanon and restricting support for the Afghan rebels and Nicaraguan Contras to material and rhetorical aid, appears positively dovish next to those who frequently invoke his name.
Republicans may need to change to win. But the candidate representing that change faces a challenge winning over Republicans.