A Battle for the Soul of the Party? The GOP Divide on Militarism

At The American Conservative, Daniel Larison quips: “It’s a bit odd that someone who incessantly calls for military intervention is offended when he is described as a reliable supporter of military interventions.” It is odd. But then again, McCain is an odd fellow.

More to the point, I think, is the schism in the conservative movement that outfits like The American Conservative have been at the center of for about a decade. This divide, manifesting in what Fox’s Shephard Smith calls two “wings” of the Republican Party, has been getting more attention in the aftermath of Rand Paul’s historic 13-hour filibuster of President Obama’s Executive usurpations in the drone war.

The schism was accentuated when McCain and Graham lambasted Rand Paul and his ilk for daring to dissent on what has been a Republican prerequisite for so long, i.e. militarism, Executive power, and secrecy. Now former Bush speechwriter (of Axis of Evil fame) David Frum is warning Republicans not to “stand with Rand.”

Rick Perlstein at The Nation makes some observations on this conservative divide:

Fox News has been going all-in praising Senator Rand Paul’s droning drone filibuster holding up John Brennan’s confirmation as CIA chief, with several Fox contributors fiercely attacking Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham for taking on the young libertarian lion—or, if you prefer, for taking Barack Obama’s side. That raises interesting questions. As I observed in my Nation dispatch from last year’s Republican convention (“The GOP Throws a Tampa Tantrum”; hats off to your clever Nation editors for that awesome headline!), “Rand Paul got some of the biggest applause of his speech for saying something this party isn’t supposed to support at all: ‘Republicans must acknowledge that not every dollar spent on the military is necessary or well spent.’” And that “John McCain and Condoleezza Rice sounded like schoolmarms lecturing indifferent students when they tried to make the case that what neoconservatives used to call the ‘freedom agenda’ was being betrayed by Barack Obama.” Does all this mean the ancient (and even, sometimes, honorable) tradition of Republican “isolationism” (the word being more than a little bit of an epithet; its advocates prefer “non-interventionism”) is making a comeback? Or, alternately, did it never really go away at the conservative grassroots, save for those distracting moments when the commander-in-chief is a conservative Republican hero like in those heady first few years of W’s Iraq War? Or is all this just another opportunity for Obama-bashing, and as such a perfect example of the intellectual contentlessness and bottomless cynicism of that favorite Republican activity?

06paul-blog480I think it is definitely both. The evidence of the cynical politics of this divide was on full display when people like Marco Rubio (R-FL) started popping up during Rand’s filibuster to say, essentially, they support the targeted killings that Rand opposes but praise him for heroically standing up to filibuster Obama. Rubio is positioning for the presidential campaign of 2016, as is Rand, and he and others didn’t want to be left out of the attention-grabbing fun.

But that doesn’t mean the divide isn’t real. Perlstein digs deep and reminds us that it was the Republicans who opposed the centralization of Executive Branch power thanks to WWII. And “How did conservative Republicans respond to the news” that the President’s secret army, the precursor to the CIA, was to be made permanent?

The Trib immediately editorialized that FDR had in mind an American “Gestapo.” One Republican congressman said, “This is another indication that the New Deal will not halt in its quest for power. Like Simon Legree it wants to own us body and soul.” Another called it “another New Deal move right along the Hitler line. It would centralize power in Washington.”

Indeed, this divide has been around for a very long time, although it was easy to forget about it when George W. Bush used 9/11 to wage criminal wars and to seize – and notably, to use – seemingly permanent wartime powers antithetical to “conservative” values like preserving constitutional restraints on government power.

Justin Raimondo, Antiwar.com’s Editorial Director, wrote a book about this divide – way back in 1993, mind you. He wrote an introduction that damn near could have been written in post-Rand-filibuster 2013:

Two traditions stand head-to-head, contending for the future of the conservative movement. One piously holds out the promise of enterprise zones from South Central Los Angeles to Mogadishu, while the other dares utter the forbidden phrase, America First! It is an odd argument, using language that seems to echo the past.

The America First Committee, main opponent of US entry into World War II, was dissolved on December 11, 1941, more than half a century ago. Smeared, subjected to government repression, and ultimately defeated, the America Firsters are mentioned in passing in American history textbooks, if at all, as either crankish obstructionists or outright Nazi sympathizers. Now the same forbidden phrase is heard once more in the land and the smearmongers are at it again – recycling old libels and raving that some tinpot Third World dictator is the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler.

Today’s paleoconservatives are the continuators of the America First wing of the conservative movement, which has a long and distinguished history. THey can count among their intellectual ancestors such towering (and, in some cases, half-forgotten) figures as Garet Garrett, Senator Robert A. Taft, John T. Flynn, Frank Chodorov, and Rose Wilder Lane. These names mean little or nothing to modern conservatives, who have lost touch with their heritage.

Not only does it seem like some conservatives are getting in touch with their non-interventionist heritage, groping towards some break with party leaders like McCain and Graham, but some Republicans are even trying explicitly to appeal to self-identified libertarians. Again, this has been happening slowly for years and it wasn’t Rand Paul who started it. It was Ron Paul.

Reason‘s Brian Doherty interviewed several post-Ron Paul newbies in Congress for the March issue of the magazine. Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) is quoted saying “voters are telling us we need to be more cautious about our foreign engagements, that we should be using our armed forces for defense and not to impose our will on the rest of the world, that we are putting ourselves at risk continuing the strategy we are engaged in.” Thomas Massie (R-KY) told Doherty, “I do believe we should be less involved overseas” and that “it’s counterproductive to be engaged in so many conflicts.”

These newbies, Rand included, are not exactly Antiwar.com adherents. Rand has downright offensive (although possibly strategic) positions on Israel and advocates ugly things like military commissions (effectively indefinite detention) at Gitmo, even while opposing the PATRIOT Act and NDAA’s indefinite detention provisions.

Will Republican opposition to Bush/Obama national security policies disappear once the GOP takes back the White House? Yes. But not completely. I’m inclined to believe Rand Paul when he said he would have performed that filibuster even if a Republican was President. I can’t say I believe it for people like Rubio or Ted Cruz (R-TX), but there is undeniably something happening in the innards of conservative consciousness. Whether it will persist the way Robert Taft’s non-interventionist legacy has persisted  – quietly and ineffectually – or whether it will overthrow the standing order is anyone’s guess. I suspect the reality will remain somewhere in between.

6 thoughts on “A Battle for the Soul of the Party? The GOP Divide on Militarism”

  1. Not only does it seem like some conservatives are getting in touch with their non-interventionist heritage, groping towards some break with party leaders like McCain and Graham, but some Republicans are even trying explicitly to appeal to self-identified libertarians. Again, this has been happening slowly for years and it wasn’t Rand Paul who started it. It was Ron Paul.

  2. Neoconservatives are bad people and when you pay attention to bad people and follow their lead you end up hurting yourself and asking yourself, "How could i ever have become that person?" You became that person for the same reason so many people do awful things – social pressure and the desire to be liked. It's up to you to recognize true innate human nature and act accordingly. We are not pure, and when we promote the perpetual use of violence and increasingly intrusive violations of the rights of others in the name of utopian fantasies, we are, in fact, simply justifying our innate desire to steal from others to benefit ourselves. hth.

  3. McCain makes we want to puke. Rand was on the Senate floor fighting for liberty while McCain was having dinner playing patticake with? Obama. McCain is old mashed potatoes. What a jerk.

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