At the Examiner, Gene Healy writes about why the Rand Paul/Rick Perry initial sparring is good for the foreign policy debate on the right. Whether it’s good or bad in the long run, I do believe it illustrates a number of challenges Republican candidates in 2016 will have to deal with, and the difficulty of assessing where the Republican base is headed at a time when few leaders have run in tandem with its shifting views on national security and foreign policy.
It should be clear, however, that Rand Paul has been elevated for three reasons, all of which are concurrent with the trendlines of Republican opinions to varying degrees. He has become the lone prominent voice on the national stage rejecting the nation-building approaches deployed by both parties in the past decade and a half; he has advocated for bringing home troops and withdrawing from or avoiding additional actions in hot spots around the world; and he has spoken to the distrust of government within the realm of security policy domestically.
It is actually this last arena in which the poll numbers have experienced the most dramatic change over the past year. The actions of the Obama administration in regards to invasions of privacy by the IRS and inappropriate actions by government officials in a number of different agencies have led Republican and Independent voters to shift significantly toward a total rejection of the established security policy. Today 77 percent of Republicans saying the National Security Agency’s spying intrudes on their privacy (even exceeding the 70 percent of Democrats!), a 27 point jump from before Obama’s presidency. 60 percent of Americans oppose the NSA collection of phone and internet data; 74 percent believe the NSA is violating their privacy rights; and a majority of Americans by a 13 point margin disapprove of the NSA itself, with again more Republicans than Democrats opposing the agency. Pew finds that almost 70 percent of self-identified Tea Partiers disapprove of the NSA – a demonstration of a shift on civil liberties that really did not exist as a phenomenon prior to the Obama era. It’s not hard to see why.
Yet even as this rising Republican suspicion of government surveillance and power has elevated Rand Paul beyond the anti-war backing of his father, I suspect it has not simultaneously led to an endorsement of Paul’s other policy views. It is notable that the same majority which wants to eliminate the ability of the NSA to spy on them also favors the prosecution of Edward Snowden. Republican primary voters don’t share the views of many Obama 2008 voters (and one suspects Rand 2016 voters) who remain incensed about the existence of Gitmo, CIA black sites, torturing bad guys, killing terrorists with drones… On all these scores, Republican voters do not display significant movement. In particular, they display no qualms about spying on foreign countries – indeed, most will agree we should absolutely be doing that in a time of an ascendant Russia and increased dangers in the Middle East. The problem this presents for Paul is that while they may be of the same mind on the NSA, the leftward portion of his base believes that Edward Snowden is a saint and Glenn Greenwald is his prophet, while the rightward portion believes both should be in jail. I don’t think he’s figured out how to deal with that yet.
As for the challenge for Rick Perry’s faction, which effects virtually every other realistic 2016 candidate, I think the back and forth with Paul reveals that non-neoconservative hawks are going to have to deal with their own discomfiting trend lines. Perry wanted to criticize Paul without having to also defend prior policy positions regarding Iraq – which Paul of course raised in his response oped. Here, Perry and his ideological allies would probably prefer to deflect: after all, just 22 percent of Americans believe the Iraq war was worth it. Even majorities of Republicans share that view, an indication that Republicans have, along with the rest of the country, largely rejected the ideas of Bush’s second inaugural as well as the view that national security requires sacrificing a significant degree of privacy. But I don’t think their candidates have come to share that view yet, at least not explicitly.
Now, this is not an indication that the Republican base is becoming anti-war, or anti-American power, or isolationist. It is an indication that they are opposed to costly lengthy humanitarian-minded missions without clear goals or conditions for victory which include putting soldiers in harm’s way doing just about anything outside the realm of what they think the military ought to be doing. The shift has been toward opposition of the international freedom agenda where it involves boots on the ground, using the military to nation build, and do a bunch of stuff that isn’t killing bad guys. And this opposition does not make one an isolationist – that label does not work when people like Jonah Goldberg have to defend themselves from being called isolationist because they didn’t want to get involved in Syria.
(As an aside: The danger in a Republican presidential primary is not to be tagged as an isolationist. It actually plays to Paul’s advantage to run with that attack, because of the rhetorical pivot it allows: “does opposition to nation-building make one an isolationist?”. No, the real danger for Paul is to be tagged as no different from an Obama-Kerry liberal. He is vulnerable on this count, and will likely remain so absent a change in his approach which includes more of an embrace of the realist policy legacy.)
Republican voters want someone who is genuinely neither neoconservative nor isolationist. They want someone who will reject the overreach of nationbuilding and sticking our nose into every conflict, reject internationalism and hypocritical spying on American citizens, and embrace a more traditional Jacksonian policy which says that if you hit us or if we see you’re going to hit us, we will use any and all Constitutional resources to hunt you down and kill you in your cave in the middle of the night.
This may seem rather simplistic. But Republican candidates are still struggling with this, and they will have to work it out before the question gets asked on the Iowa debate stage of “Was it right to go to war in Iraq? Would you do it again? And what would you do about the NSA?”
In a sense, this is just another consequence of Republicans losing the adult in the room status on security and foreign policy. The party has always included realists and idealists, and there was in the past a degree of trust that elected leaders could sound more like idealists but govern more like realists. Welcome to life in a political realm where that trust no longer exists.