walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: March 7, 2013
Rand Paul’s Tea Too Strong for the GOP?

Yesterday we wrote about the blue civil war that could rip the Democratic Party down the middle, but today Republican leaders faced a smaller civil war of their own. Around 1 a.m. some Senate Republicans, led by tea partier Rand Paul, ended a thirteen hour filibuster protesting the confirmation of John Brennan to the CIA. More to the point, they were using the parliamentary opportunity presented by his confirmation process to demand a clarification on whether the White House believes that the President has the authority to zap anybody in America with a drone strike.

The filibuster ended when Senator Paul got what he said was a satisfactory response from the administration, but the Republican fireworks were just getting started. This morning John McCain fired a shot across Paul’s bow, calling some of Paul’s claims during the filibuster “ridiculous,” as Talking Points Memo reports:

“So we’ve done a, I think, a disservice to a lot Americans by making them believe that somehow they’re in danger from their government,” McCain said. “They’re not. But we are in danger. We are in danger from a dedicated, longstanding, easily replaceable leadership enemy that is hellbent on our destruction. And this leads us to having to do things that perhaps we haven’t had to do in other more conventional wars.”

McCain’s comments have set off a vigorous debate among Republicans and conservative pundits. Conservative group FreedomWorks called McCain’s comments “rude and out of line,” and some beat Via Meadia to the punch and called the debate a “GOP civil war.” The discussion and the infighting will continue for some time to come, and could well play a significant role in the presidential politics of 2016.

A few years ago, Republicans wouldn’t have experienced quite this kind of infighting over foreign policy. Ron Paul and his scrappy, sometimes scruffy supporters disagreed, but most GOP leaders were united around a big defense budget, tough enforcement of laws like the propagandistically named “Patriot Act,”a globally assertive foreign policy and a hard line on the GWOT.  No longer. The McCain-Rand controversy is but the latest sign of a widening chasm in the Republican party. In the recent debate over the sequester, many Republicans signaled that they would accept cuts to military spending if it lowered the federal debt. And a growing number of conservatives are joining far left writers like Glenn Greenwald in their criticisms about the way the Obama administration is using drones in US foreign policy.

After the 2012 election, the media focused mostly on the divide between social and fiscal conservatives in the GOP, but these recent events suggest that another civil war is brewing between two groups of hawks: war hawks and debt hawks. On the one hand, the GOP is still full of people like Senator McCain who see the preservation of a robust foreign policy—drone strikes, big budgets and all—as the most urgent issue facing the United States. On the other hand, there is a small but growing and vocal group of Republicans who view the national debt as a bigger threat to US interests than Al Qaeda, Red China and the Russians combined.

Diligent students of Meadism know that WRM divides the landscape of American foreign policy thought into four camps, named for four famous US leaders: Alexander Hamilton, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. Each of these four thinkers inspires a school of thought that still has followers today, but since Sept. 11, Jacksonians have made the most noise, especially in the GOP. Jacksonians are populists who want a muscular and realist foreign policy. They are more into bad-guy bashing than into nation building, and if our enemies break the laws of war they don’t think the US should be bound by Marquis of Queensbury rules. When the Iraq War was about weapons of mass destruction, Jacksonians backed it to the hilt. When it turned into an expensive and bloody exercise in democracy building in a country far, far away, Jacksonians grew disenchanted, but they stuck it out because the only thing they hate more than fighting unnecessary wars is losing.

While democracy promoting neoconservatives did most of the writing about Bush’s foreign policy from the Republican side, Jacksonians did most of the voting that kept him in the White House for eight years.

Flash forward to 2013 and the landscape has changed. Liberated from the need to defend the policies of a Republican president, and benefiting from the sense that both Bush and Obama managed to reduce the direct threat to the United States from Al Qaeda, some Republicans are taking another look at this whole world policeman concept. Jacksonians only want to get involved overseas in response to threats; Jeffersonians think we can reduce threats coming from abroad by scaling down our overseas military presence. Put the two camps together and a significant Republican and conservative movement for a less aggressive, less global foreign policy starts to emerge.

Jeffersonians follow our nation’s third President in wanting a small government at home, limited entanglements abroad, and in hating and fearing the potential for abuse inherent in the rise of a national-security state. World War Two, the Cold War and then 9/11 pushed Jeffersonians into the background in American politics.  The world looked like such a dangerous place that a certain amount of proactive global policy seemed attractive, but with the death of Osama bin Laden the Jeffersonian worldview has gained new support. Al Qaeda looks more like a nuisance than an existential threat, China isn’t ready for prime time and Russia is over the hill. Maybe it’s time for the Atlas of the West to take a break.

Meanwhile, growing fears of an entitlement state fueled by infinitely extended budget deficits an order of magnitude bigger than many Americans like have made spending at home look more dangerous than bad guys abroad. Jeffersonian ideas, in a slightly less crack-potty format than the one advanced by the elder Paul, now begin to look like a compelling alternative to ambitious young politicians in the GOP. The younger Paul, hoping to build on his father’s core of supporters without some of the old man’s baggage, seems to see a path ahead.

This doesn’t mean we are on the verge of GOPageddon. American political parties are Walt Whitmanesque; they contradict themselves, they contain multitudes. The GOP isn’t threatened with imminent breakup over the Paul-McCain fight anymore than Dems face imminent demise over the split between public unions and the rest of the country. In fact, the GOP split may be less dangerous in the long run; the Dem fight pits core constituencies of the party in a zero-sum cage fight, while the GOP factions are less evenly balanced and the issues at stake can be easier to compromise.

The Dem war involves the rock bottom core interests of two vital and effectively organized party constituents: the producers of government services and the consumers of those services. Who gets the money, the kids in school, or the retired teachers? The families who want fire and police protection now, or the firefighters and police who provided that protection in the past?

In the GOP constellation, however, defense spending is less problematic. Should crises threaten overseas (and it’s a safe bet that they will given the kind of world we live in) many though not all GOP voters will want to give Uncle Sam whatever he thinks he needs to keep them safe. And the spending that Rand Paul and his tea party allies are the most passionate about isn’t defense spending: it’s the entitlement cost curve and national defense Republicans are as worried about that as the Paulites.

That said, there is nothing permanent about the makeup of our two party system. Coalitions in American history have a way of breaking up; old allies flounce off and find new friends. Go back a generation and almost all white southerns were Democrats, go back two generations and most blacks were Republicans. Jews used to be a swing vote; ethnic northern Catholics used to be solid for the Dems.

In the 21st century the United States will confront a whole new series of challenges as everything from our economy to our place in the world shifts in complicated ways. American party politics are unlikely to remain stable in the face of these changes, and it is anybody’s guess what our party system will look like by 2030.

The battles now raging in both of America’s big political parties may or may not be the beginnings of wider realignments. But new generations bring new issues and new questions to the fore, and both the Battle of San Bernadino and the Battle of the Drones show that the deeper seismic forces that periodically rip American politics apart are very much alive and in play.

[Image Courtesy of Must Gage Skidmore]

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