Are we about to have an old-fashioned and very serious fight over foreign policy in the GOP?

Nomination battles aren’t only about personalities; they’re also one way, perhaps the main way, that parties decide who they are and what they stand for. We haven’t, however, had a lot of that in presidential nominations in the past several cycles. On the Democratic side, there have been few policy differences separating the main contenders (with candidates separating themselves more on style and attitude than actual policy positions), while on the Republican side, it’s mostly been about enforcing various veto points that the national party insists on.

However, the chances appear to be growing that we may see an honest-to-goodness split in the upcoming Republican nomination contest for president over foreign policy between neocons and an assortment of realists and neo-isolationists. We already knew that the very small libertarian anti-neocon faction would be generously represented in GOP debates, with Ron Paul this time joined by Gary Johnson. But the news that Sarah Palin has defected from the neocons is, I suspect, something that actually matters.

That’s not just because hers will obviously be a significant voice if she winds up contesting the primaries and caucuses next year. It’s also because it’s possible that Palin knows her audience — she may be doing this in response to what she sees as a real market opportunity for those who don’t want to keep current conflicts going forever and start new ones (in Iran? Syria? Korea? All of the above, and more?) at the drop of a hat.

Now, it’s Sarah Palin — it’s also quite possible she’s made this move because she took offense at something that Bill Kristol said, or at some other petty, personal slight. The chances are still good that Paul and Johnson will be treated (on national security issues) as oddballs, and that most candidates will try to differentiate themselves only on the basis of who is toughest, which will in practice boil down to a depressing spectacle of competition over who is most pro-torture. We’ll have to see how it plays out. But I do think that, for the first time in a while, it’s very possible that a serious divide will open up over policy in the GOP, and that it will wind up a major factor in the nomination process.

I'll say one thing about it: It’s far healthier for the democratic process and for the GOP in particular to actually have these fights out in public during the contest for the presidential nomination than to resolve them through bureaucratic maneuvering and infighting during the next Republican administration.