Is GOP Foreign Policy Getting More Libertarian, or Is it Just Anti-Democrat Opportunism?


That was, more or less, the question bandied about in The Independents aftershow on Monday, featuring former Reagan-administration deputy defense secretary K.T. McFarland and New York Times Magazine politics reporter Robert Draper, author of a recent profile of the libertarian movement:

When I interviewed Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) one year ago, during the run-up to what many believed was imminent U.S. bombing of Syria, he assessed the foreign policy divide within the GOP like this:

We're losing, on a good day, 70/30 among the Republicans. But we win every day among the grassroots, probably 80/20, 90/10.

In the case of Syria, the Rand Paul wing emerged politically victorious that time. But as any cursory search of the Reason archives will attest, the foreign policy civil war within the GOP is fierce and ongoing, and will include constant Republican attacks on Paul, as well as periodic hawkish embraces of Hillary Clinton.

So I reckon that the 30/70 math still applies in 2014, and is subject to even worse showing within two years, no matter how anti-interventionist the public may be trending. Why?

Because of the nature of power and tribalism. That is to say, when your tribe's not in power, you tend to be more sympathetic to anti-authoritarian critiques. Republicans in 2014 are with a straight face suing the president over the abuse of executive power, less than six years after a Republican presidency that exuberantly expanded the stuff on basic principle. On the reverse angle, Democrats in 2014 are psyched up to support a hawk with a lousy civil-liberties record not six years after filling every available airwave criticizing the "imperial presidency" of Darth W. Cheney.

It is in that sense that I believe David Frum is probably correct in his otherwise (in my judgment) incorrect assessment of Draper's piece, when he says this about the GOP:

The "libertarian moment" will last as long as, and no longer than, it takes conservatives to win a presidential election again.

That's assuming, of course, that the winner ain't Rand Paul….

Can an intervention-skeptic compete? |||

There's a reason why critics from both right and left want to quarantine societal libertarianism as a finite political subset within the Republican Party: That way it can just go away, next time the electoral pendulum swings. And they may be right, in the narrow sense of how professional pols actually behave once in power.

But skepticism about U.S. military interventionism runs a lot deeper throughout the country as a whole than among the people most invested in two-party politics. (See pollster Scott Rasmussen's interesting 2012 piece for Reason, "Ready to Cut Military Spending," for some details about that politician/populace gap.) As Jesse Walker wrote here last month,

In 2014, more Americans are skeptical about military action than at any other time in the last half-century. It is not impossible to get a majority to back certain sorts of intervention abroad. But it hasn't been this hard for a long time. 

Late last year, the Pew Research Center released one of its periodic surveys of American attitudes about foreign policy. Fifty-two percent of the country, a record high, endorsed the idea that "the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." Only 38 percent disagreed. This marked a striking change: Even in 1976, a year after the fall of Saigon, the people who disagreed with the statement narrowly outnumbered the ones who agreed with it. And Pew's results are not out of step with the data in other surveys. When Politico published a poll of likely voters in battleground races this week, for example, 67 percent said that American military actions "should be limited to direct threats to our national security."

One of the main points that Nick Gillespie and I emphasized in The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America, is that new technologies, combined with the both the growing number of political independents and the growing deployment of independence as a political weapon, make it harder and harder for the two parties to govern in ways measurably out of sync with their respective bases.

So yes, the GOP's recent increase in intervention-skepticism should not be trusted even one little bit. But in a presidential election featuring an "unapologetically hawkish" front-runner, there's a significant opening for a candidate with foreign policy attitudes more in line with the American people. A contest like that has the potential to be more than mere "moment."