As President Obama moves towards nominating former GOP senator Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense, and as Republicans gear up to try and
totally unhinge themselves defeat him, it seems like a good time to follow up on my Foreign Affairs essay on how badly the GOP has screwed the pooch on foreign policy. Let's start by addressing some critical feedback.
Ben Domenech wasn't all that impressed with my essay, as he explained in his newsletter:
Drezner’s problem is that Republican foreign policy has largely become bipartisan, so the critique is one that is more of tone than policy details: the grandstanding of the Romney campaign, its single-minded endorsement of unrestricted Pentagon spending, and the simplicity of its bullet point approach to issues. But these are critiques of a campaign and a candidate who wished to contrast without offending in every policy arena, not simply the foreign policy space – it’s unfair to assign this as due to an entire party’s approach to foreign policy.
A few thoughts here:
1) I'm not sure Domenech read the whole essay, because while I certainly talked about the 2012 campaign, I talked a fair amount about the previous decade of GOP foreign policy, and it's not pretty.
2) What Domenech doesn't seem to get is that the "single-minded endorsement of unrestricted Pentagon spending, and the... bullet point approach to issues" don't just apply to the Romney campaign -- it applies to the overwhelming bulk of GOP elites that weigh in on foreign policy. That sentiment perfectly captures the essence of the 112th Congress, not to mention the "Defending Defense" initiative put together by conservative think tanks. Actually, in some ways the congressional wing was worse because of the anti-Muslim hysteria, though to its credit that is an area where the GOP really does seem to be making some strides.
3) Saying that my critique is "one that is more of tone than policy details" shouldn't make the GOP feel any better. Because the GOP didn't win either the presidency or the Senate, tone and rhetoric are pretty much all Republicans can control on foreign policy. Oh, sure, Congress has some power, but it's largely a negative one -- they can say "no" to the president from time to time. The problem is that when they do this they either look like know-nothings or paranoids.
So the rhetoric actually matters for the GOP, because that's all anyone -- voters and wonks alike -- are gonna imbibe from Republicans for the next four years. Now this sets up an genuinely unfair challenge to the GOP: they'll be tarred with extremist statements made by the fringiest of the fringe. That said, the party leadership can improve its brand by taking the occasional stand if some back-bencher strays too far off the reservation (as occurred when a few idiots questioned Huma Abedin's loyalty).
4) Both Domenech (and Seth Mandel in Commentary) argue that because Obama has suceeded by co-opted the successful aspects of the GOP's foreign policy, Republicans can't be in that much trouble. The trouble here is which parts Obama co-opted, and how the GOP has reacted to that. Republicans used to have a pretty big tent on foreign policy -- realists, internationalists, and neocons galore. Bush 43's second term was pretty pragmatic and neocon-free, and that was what the Obama team co-opted. I'm honestly not sure that today's GOP is as keen on these kibds of foreign policy worldviews. The reaction to Chuck Hagel's possible nomination, for example, or the tenor of Danielle Pletka's Foreign Policy musings on the GOP, suggest that despite a decade of monumental f**k-ups, neocons still rule the GOP roost. Which means that leading GOP spokespeople on foreign policy no longer embrace the aspects of GOP foreign policy traditions co-opted by Obama. Or to put this another way: ask yourself if any of the viable 2016 GOP candidates for president would appoint someone like Bob Gates to be Secretary of Defense.
Now, it's possible that the next GOP president will campaign as a neocon and govern as something else. But doing that means that Republicans are sticking with a brand that, as I pointed out here and in Foreign Affairs, will cost them votes.
For the past few decades, the GOP triad to victory was low taxes, wedge social issues, and advocating for a robust foreign policy. Each of those three legs is now in jeopardy. Public opinion favors higher taxes, the right has lost the culture wars, and the public now trusts Democrats more than Republicans on foreign policy. Unless and until the GOP faces these realities, and figures out some new path forward beyond "REAGAN!", it's dooming itself to be the doppelgänger of eighties Democrats.
Domenech accuses me of lacking a clear way forward. I don't think that's true, but I will acknowledge that the primary point of my essay was to get the GOP to admit that it has a problem. If Mitt Romney's campaign proved anything, it's that creedal passion isn't enough to win on foreign policy -- there actually has to be some policy content. As to the way forward, I like James Poulos' suggestions in this post.
Look, I get that this seems like a thankless exercise. Talking about foreign affairs when you're out of power is a frustrating and abstract task. On the other hand, one reason the GOP is out of power is that its loudest voices don't sound terribly reasonable when it comes to world politics. This is the challenge it has to face for the next four years.