The Coming Republican Crackup

Will a debate over foreign policy tear apart the GOP ? Probably not.

John Avalon, author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America, argues that Michael Steele’s recent comments about Afghanistan reveal a far deeper split in the GOP over foreign policy:

The Michael Steele Show will keep on running through the fall, despite his Afghanistan-is-Obama’s-War gaffe, which drew immediate calls for his resignation from neo-conservatives like Bill Kristol and Co. and a spirited defense from the libertarian Congressman Ron Paul.

But this latest distraction was deeply revealing. It exposed the growing influence of a grassroots neo-isolationist movement that is springing up as a backlash to both Presidents Bush and Obama, while reviving an old debate thought long-dead within the Republican Party between the isolationists and the internationalists.

It’s a grudge match last fought in 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated Senator Robert Taft in the GOP primary and then won the presidency, returning the White House to Republican control for the first time in 20 years and committing the nation to a bipartisan policy of international engagement.

Now those old fault lines are festering again, encouraged most prominently by Ron Paul and Glenn Beck. Think back to their starring roles at CPAC last January, with speeches that dragged Woodrow Wilson out of mothballs, beat him about the head and neck, and blamed him for the decline of the constitutional republic—or as Beck would say, “the cancer of progressivism.” But the real hit on Wilson was the international interventionist approach to foreign policy—making the world “safe for democracy”—which still bears his name. It’s a legacy that FDR embraced, Ike moved into the GOP mainstream, Reagan used to win the Cold War, and George W. Bush took to new heights with Afghanistan and Iraq.

With a long war hangover, however, a Pew Research Study from last November found that “Isolationist Sentiment Surges to Four-Decade High.” Roughly half of Americans agreed with the statement that the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally,” while 44 percent said “we should go our own way.” Less than 20 percent felt the same way in 1964. Perhaps most troubling, the poll found that people under 30 are more likely to hold this view.

The young Paul-ites who manned the ramparts at CPAC—and delivered a stunning victory for him in the straw poll over Establishment favorite Mitt Romney—are an edgier sort that the coat-and-tie Buckley-ite young conservatives of an earlier generation. This was the antiwar crowd by way of Ayn Rand, organized under the banner of Young Americans for Liberty. Their signs protested the Patriot Act, proclaimed that “gun registration is a gateway drug,” and of course argued we should “End the Fed.” One bumper sticker I saw summed up the whole philosophy/ psychology: “Paper money => Bubble => Recession => Stimulus => Inflation => Price Controls => Shortages => Riots => Troops on Your Streets.”

Contrary to Avalon’s calculus, though, one does not have to be an isolationist to question both the fiscal sanity and the prudence of current American foreign policy, or the nation-building impulses of the neo-conservatives who ran foreign policy during the Bush Administration. Financially, being the “world’s policeman” is something that we can’t necessarily afford anymore — and the prudence of subsidizing the defense budgets of Europe and Japan is another topic entirely — and the past several decades have shown that we’re not necessarily very good at bringing “freedom” to parts of the world that have no real concept of what that means.

In some sense, then, it’s a good thing if the Republican Party starts having a long-overdue debate about foreign policy, but Avalon contends that it carries with it the risk of opening a rift in the GOP that could damage the party:

Short-term partisan calculus will likely cause Republican leaders to encourage an uneasy alliance with the neo-isolationists because they hope to benefit from their aggressive dislike of President Obama in the mid-term elections. But their increased influence on the GOP could prove disastrous for a serious 2012 presidential nominee who will have to campaign as being “strong on national security” and confront an ongoing non-optional war against Islamist terrorism. Sixty years after the Eisenhower vs. Taft primary, the debate will be the same—internationalism or isolationism—and so will the stakes: General-election victory or defeat.

What Avalon fails to recognize — and this is probably understandable since he is an outsider in this internal debate among Republicans and conservatives — is that there are more than two choices here. It isn’t just a choice between isolationism v. all-out war, there is plenty room in between those extremes that is worthy of being debated, and the idea that merely having that debate would tear apart the GOP coalition is, in a word, absurd and strikes me as just than a little more wishful thinking on Avalon’s part.

I do hope that Avalon is right in one sense, though, because it’s long past the time for Republicans to realize that not every war is a good war.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2010, Campaign 2012, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Michael Powell says:

    I’m generally in strong rejection of the argument that freedom and democracy can’t be attained in parts of the world where there is no history of it. South Korea and Japan proved that hypothesis to be false. Defenders of Bush did not have an empty case in comparing him to Harry Truman, who presided over a very unpopular war that was not vindicated until decades later and many years of one-party rule in SK.

    Given that, the sort of “beacon of democracy” policies that the United States has had for the last half century can be seen as a luxury of a booming United States. When you’ve got the sort of fiscal meltdowns that are occurring in once brilliant areas like California, it’s appropriate to wonder if we can afford to be everywhere.

  2. Michael says:

    Doug you are alwys, always down on the Republicans. Are you a undercover Democrat?

  3. Brummagem Joe says:

    I think this is just one of the fissures in the GOP because a lot of Republican policy stances have contradictions in them. In foreign policy there has long been an isolationist, anti nation building sub group that was at odds with the party’s nationalist wing. The fact they sometimes overlap in certain areas adds to the confusion. I’d say that over the last ten years or so the Republican party has been completely taken over by the neocon mindset of nationalism, unilateralism, militarism and Zionism. It’s essentially become a kneejerk on issues as disparate as Afghanistan, torture or the World court. Reversing this world view seems rather unlikely to me since it’s been inculcated into the base. Afghanistan is a totally unwinnable situation but domestic politics (for which read American machismo which is principally driven by the right) makes a swift solution impossible. I think the president knows this and is allowing history to be the teacher. Already there are majorities for adhering to the drawdown deadline and these are likely to grow with a another year of running around the mountains. 80% of the GOP will scream but the more realistic minority will shrug their shoulders and quietly applaud but with no schism. Now on the subject of immigration!!

  4. Tano says:

    The neoconservatives seem to have a foreign policy that they actually believe in, for better or worse. The majority of Republicans however, adopt foreign policy positions that are derivative of what they consider to be more important principles. Namely, the pursuit of political power as an end in itself.

    There seems to be a deeply held assumption, by activists in both parties, that agreeing with a position taken by the other party is never helpful with regard to your own political fortunes. If you agree with your opponents, then the best you could ever hope for is half of the credit for a policy that turns out well – probably less. And if your opponents hold the positions of power, then you probably will get very little credit at all. There are almost always far greater opportunities in taking the opposing position – especially since there are precious few policy disputes that ever get decisively resolved one way or the other.

    That’s why the Republican party movers and shakers have clearly decided to throw up blanket opposition to anything and everything the Obama administration does – irrespective of the merits of the case.

    That is the reason why we see the ground shifting under the GOP war positions. Afghanistan has become “Obama’s War” in a political sense. He campaigned for a reemphasis on Afghanistan, he criticized the previous administration for their lack of attention, and then in office, he did what he had promised – greatly increasing our commitments in terms of troops, money, and prestige.

    There is nothing to be gained by Republicans from nodding along with all this – especially since agreeing with Obama’s position is an implicit acceptance of his critiques of Republican stewardship of the war.

    So forget about all the fancy philosophy – the shift in position here is entirely political posturing. Yes it will be contentious – because some (like the neocons) do want to hold to positions based on the merits. But they are a minority. The difficulty for the bulk of the party is simply to find the way to seamlessly move from one position to its opposite without admitting to what the driving motivation is. That will be tricky, and will inspire much argument. But it is not a philosophical argument.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    Tano:

    Absolutely right and very well put.

  6. john personna says:

    Michael Powell, with respect to rebuilding societies, I think we are seeing a national cohesion as a necessary precursor for peaceful democracy. That is not something that can be supplied by an external force.

    In other words, you can lead a horse to water.

  7. steve says:

    No, it wont tear apart the party. The incoming Paulites wil be co-opted by the existing party structure. The desire to rule will dominate over ideology. Once they realize that talking about lowering spending gets you elected, but actually reducing spending might cost you an election, they will abandon that also. (See, Republican Party 1980-2010)

    Steve

  8. Brummagem Joe says:

    “Yes it will be contentious – because some (like the neocons) do want to hold to positions based on the merits. But they are a minority. The difficulty for the bulk of the party is simply to find the way to seamlessly move from one position to its opposite without admitting to what the driving motivation is. That will be tricky, and will inspire much argument. But it is not a philosophical argument.”

    Maybe not a philosophical argument for the base but perhaps more of a gut argument which is potentially more dangerous. When you’ve spent years brainwashing your infantry on the evils of Islamofascism, Caliphates, the French hate us, no surrender, we’re the greatest, American exceptionalism, bomb bomb Iran, and all the other nonsense, it might be more difficult to pivot than you think. I like you don’t see a schism, but some heartburn? Probably.

  9. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    T and Reynold, what BS. What you call the party of no is a prinicipled resistance to a socialist agenda foisted upon us by an unqualified neo communist who has zero experience at leadership (check out the gulf oil spill) and has displayed very little leadership experience. What your boy has managed to do is move this nation in a direction it does not wish to go. Tano, if you are so eager to redistribute your wealth, I will supply you with an address to send all your money or are you just waiting for the government to do it for you. If you fail to take me up on this I will that the priciple of hypocracy apply.

  10. Herb says:

    “What your boy/i> has managed to do is move this nation in a direction it does not wish to go.”

    Interesting choice of words, Zels…

    I know, I know. You didn’t mean anything racial by it. What then, may I ask, is your “driving motivation?” To sound like a fool?

  11. steve says:

    “Tano, if you are so eager to redistribute your wealth, I will supply you with an address to send all your money or are you just waiting for the government to do it for you.”

    The real wealth redistribution in this country has been upwards to the wealthy and the elderly. Stop that, and we have no future debt problem.

    Steve

  12. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    He is not my boy, Herb. I would rather be a fool than an idiot. The policies you expouse will enslave you. Since I have no respect for the person currently, illegally holding the office of President I feel no need to even attempt political correctness. Ever seen him throw a baseball? He might not be a boy, surely he was punked by Frank Davis. I know King Barack the first lives like a king. He flew to Maine with his family but his DOG AND ITS KEEPER FLEW ON A SEPARATE PLANE AT OUR EXPENSE. If you can excuse that, you have no backbone what so ever. If Bush would have done such a thing, it woiuld have been front page news on all of the left wing media. The only thing lying democrats can do is point at Republicans hoping to divert attention from the freedoms they steal daily. People like you Herb are a sure sign the communists have worked their evil on our system. If you can read, get Alinsky’s book and read it. Then have someone explain to you what is going on in relation to what is in that book.

  13. wr says:

    Zels — Part of that “socialist agenda” is the unemployment payments you accept from the government. Although it’s really keen to show how you’re fighting against fascism by using thinly disguised racist comments against the president, it would be more impressive if you’d stop taking money from the government, instead of simply demanding they not pay out to everyone except you. Next up: Zels says keep your stinking government hands off my Medicare.

  14. sam says:

    Zelsdorf scribbles:

    an unqualified neo communist who has zero experience at leadership (check out the gulf oil spill) and has displayed very little leadership experience. What your boy has managed to do is move this nation in a direction it does not wish to go

    The question for this exam is: In what ways does this illustrate that a feeble mind can hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously and be unaware of the fact?

  15. TangoMan says:

    The real wealth redistribution in this country has been upwards to the wealthy and the elderly. Stop that, and we have no future debt problem.

    I can see your point with regards to the elderly but how on earth are you figuring that the wealthy are net tax recipients? If they’re net tax recipients, then who are the net tax contributors, those who pay more in taxes than they receive in services? Someone has to be paying in more than they consume in government services. Now you’re ruling out the wealthy as being the main net tax contributors and you’re stating that they’re one of the principal beneficiaries of wealth redistribution in this country. I need to see evidence of this, so I’d appreciate you documenting this redistribution of wealth from one, or more, classes of taxpayers towards the wealthy. Every statistic I’ve seen shows that the wealthy are paying the freight for the majority of the nation’s taxpayers.

  16. Brummagem Joe says:

    TangoMan says:
    Sunday, July 18, 2010 at 00:19

    “Every statistic I’ve seen shows that the wealthy are paying the freight for the majority of the nation’s taxpayers.”

    Well that would be because they are taking an increasing share of the national income. In fact income inequality is back at late 1920’s levels. I’m not surprised you’re unfamiliar with these facts since I already know you don’t understand how a progressive tax system works. You can learn something about the substantial increase in income inequality that has occurred over the last thirty years here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Income_inequality_in_the_United_States

  17. steve says:

    I se taxes as a zero sum game. (Ignore spending for a sec since no one reduces it anyway.) If someone else pays less, another person(s) pays more. So, the mortgage deduction and the health care deduction disproportionately favor higher earners. Capital gains is income. It should be taxed as such. Wealthy people frequently negotiate for and receive lower tax rates for placing or keeping their businesses in a given area.

    The end result is that we have seen a wealth concentration effect similar to what we had in 1929. I believe that when you make the rich richer, they mostly look after their own self interests. That may include more investment, or it may increase rent seeking behavior. It concentrates economic and political decision making into the hands of very few people. The end result seems fairly clear, if you believe in market principles.

    Steve

  18. TangoMan says:

    Steve,

    If someone else pays less, another person(s) pays more.

    OK, but not really relevant, in my opinion. The bottom 50% are paying nearly nothing towards the provision of government services and what they do pay in taxes they get more than their fair share back in services.

    So, the mortgage deduction and the health care deduction disproportionately favor higher earners. Capital gains is income. It should be taxed as such. Wealthy people frequently negotiate for and receive lower tax rates for placing or keeping their businesses in a given area.

    You list a lot of normative positions. Things that should be. I could dispute your positions on these taxes but this line of reasoning doesn’t at all support your contention that the wealthy are the principal recipients of wealth “redistribution.” To redistribute means to take from one party and to grant to another party. All that a mortgage deduction does is it allows a taxpayer to keep more of their own money. That’s not redistribution. The same applies to your other examples.

    Brummagem Joe,

    Well that would be because they are taking an increasing share of the national income.

    Are you being forced to see your dentist? Are you being forced to use Turbo Tax? Are you being forced to buy a car from a particular car dealer?

    The wealthy, in most cases, are wealthy because they’re doing what you have the option of doing in a free society but they simply do it better than most. Nobody is forced to buy a ticket to see a pro sports team play a game. No one is forced to watch sports on TV. No one is forced to buy athletic gear endorsed by famous athletes. The team owners are not forced to pay multimillion dollar salaries to athletes. No one is forced to buy a Stephen King novel.

    Why is it that a small segment of society is reaping an increasing share of the national income? In most cases, I believe, these gains are not the result of rent-seeking behavior, nor of extortion, nor of enforced monopoly. Society, and the economy, have changed from a century ago, and today we place a higher value on value added via talent and intelligence and imagination than we do on mere execution of duties or mere muscle power.Lots and lots of people can do trained work or physical labor while many fewer can add something to a commercial exchange which is valued by other people to the extent that many would willingly part with their money in exchange for that original idea, product or endeavor. Most of this inequality arises from free exchanges by free people. No one is forced to pay LeBron James millions to play in Miami. He’s getting that money because the team owner thinks that he is getting the better of the deal. You have the same option of going up to the owner of the Miami Heat and offering your basketball talents to the club.

  19. steve says:

    “OK, but not really relevant, in my opinion.”

    Of course not, you just want lower taxes and less spending. I want the budget balanced. If we need 10x dollars to pay a debt, and my neighbor and I are each paying 5x, we pay off our debt. If he gets special privileges to pay 4x, requiring me to pay 6x, it is very relevant to me. It is great for him that he gets to keep more of his money, not so great for me. If we are just playing semantics, let me say that I am not happy about subsidizing that person.

    Steve

  20. TangoMan says:

    If we are just playing semantics, let me say that I am not happy about subsidizing that person.

    Here too, I don’t see how the poor and the middle class are subsidizing that wealthy, when the poor and middle class, broadly speaking, are paying between 10%-25% and 25%-33% marginal tax rates, respectively, while the wealthy are paying 35%.

    If we need 10x dollars to pay a debt, and my neighbor and I are each paying 5x, we pay off our debt. If he gets special privileges to pay 4x, requiring me to pay 6x, it is very relevant to me.

    You’re writing as though we lived in a taxation environment characterized by a flat tax. If everyone paid the same rate, then I think that you’d be on firmer ground. The fact that we live with a progressive tax system means that it’s unlikely that those with higher tax burdens who take advantage of tax deductions that are available to all citizens are actually placing more burden on you, presuming that you pay a lower marginal tax rate than the wealthy.

    Of course not, you just want lower taxes and less spending. I want the budget balanced

    I too want the budget balanced. I like budget hawks in office which is one of the principal reasons that I support Governor Palin. My main bugaboo is not high taxes, it’s high spending and expansionist government. I could live with $1 in tax increases for every $5 in reduction in social welfare redistribution in order to bring the budget into balance. It’s not minimal taxing that got us into an out of control debt situation, it was spending without restraint, so I think that the principal avenue of attack should be to drastically cut spending and as a sign of cooperation tax revenues would be raised by increasing marginal tax rates all the way up the progressive ladder.

  21. Brummagem Joe says:

    TangoMan says:
    Sunday, July 18, 2010 at 13:02

    ” The wealthy, in most cases, are wealthy because they’re doing what you have the option of doing in a free society but they simply do it better than most. ”

    Well I’m sure you’re looking forward to the day when the top 1% are taking 50% of income rather than their current 23% and the rest of the country is living in penury a bit like China. Whether this is going to be good for America which relies on consumer spending for 70% of its GDP is another matter however. Not that little details like this have ever crossed your mind.

  22. TangoMan says:

    Well I’m sure you’re looking forward to the day when the top 1% are taking 50% of income rather than their current 23% and the rest of the country is living in penury a bit like China.

    Where do you think that wealth comes from? How is it created? If there were no people taking risks, no people creating value that others wanted, if everyone behaved the same way, then you’d probably be living in a world of egalitarian bliss where everyone marketed their ordinary talents and wares and no one had anything exceptional in their lives which intersected the world of commerce. This utopia of yours would be a very poor nation but at least everyone could be equal in their misery.

    The simple fact that you keep dancing around is that in most cases (excepting wealth generated by rent-seeking and monopoly) the people who earn their wealth do so via free exchanges with people who think that they’re getting a fair deal. Why do you believe that you should intervene in these free exchanges and extract value from one party so that you can transfer that value to parties who have no intersection with the lives of the transaction participants and who aren’t even a party to the transaction?