July 29, 2013

Despite the clear role foreign policy has played in the GOP’s political problems, Republican elites have yet to distance themselves from the belligerent and aggressive rhetoric of the Bush administration. Insofar that Mitt Romney spoke on foreign policy in last year’s presidential election, it was to oppose the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, push for intervention in Syria and declare Russia our “number one geopolitical foe.” Likewise, Republicans such as Sens. Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham have consistently attacked the Obama administration from the right, urging the president to adopt a more aggressive stance toward the world.

Rand Paul
Sen. Rand Paul (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

With that said, the newfound libertarian streak in the GOP has yielded a handful of politicians who reject the interventionism of the Bush years. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, in particular, is trying to build his national brand around an image of foreign policy prudence, generating attacks from more traditional Republicans. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for instance, blasted Paul’s opposition to widespread surveillance and other aspects of the national security state as “dangerous” and strongly implied it would lead to another terrorist attack:

“The next attack that comes, that kills thousands of Americans as a result, people are going to be looking back on the people having this intellectual debate and wondering whether they put…,” Christie said before trailing off.

And yesterday, New York Rep. Peter King warned that Paul’s ideas could “destroy” the Republican Party, calling them “disgraceful.”

“This is an isolation streak that’s in our party. It goes totally against the party of Eisenhower, Bush,” King said. “I mean we are a party of national defense. We’re a party who did so much to protect the country over the last 12 years.”

The problem is that this all ignores the circumstances that cost the GOP control of Congress in 2006 and destroyed President Bush’s standing with the public. If there was any one thing that turned voters against Bush and the Republican Party, it was the Iraq war. By 2006, the war was immensely unpopular with large swaths of voters, and the GOP’s inability to respond to this — and its decision to double down on its support for the war — created a huge opening for Democrats. Democratic wins in 2006 and 2008 — which gave them the huge majorities and unified control of 2009 and 2010 — couldn’t have happened without wide discontent with the Iraq war. The same goes for Barack Obama’s success in the Democratic primary, which was built on his opposition to the war.

The easiest way for the GOP to regain voters without compromising its economic agenda is to move in Paul’s direction on foreign policy. Indeed, that’s the Paul approach in a nutshell — tax cuts, like Bush, but without the wars. That the GOP resists this is another sure sign that it hasn’t learned any lessons from the failures of the Bush years and is eager to repeat them.