Obamacare will always be the Democrats’ disaster. If it works – if, in thirty-odd years, there’s universally good health care and the state is not yet bankrupt – it will be their accomplishment. But if it’s a disaster, they will still own it.
That’s not true for all disasters. Somalia, for example, and Vietnam were robustly bipartisan catastrophes. But most are single-parent. Katrina was a Republican failure, and politicizing the IRS a Democratic one. Iran-Contra? Republican. The Iranian hostage rescue attempt? Democratic. The Iraq War is still, eleven years on, a Republican problem. Rand Paul can help them.
Which is not to say that the current crisis in Iraq is the Republicans’ fault. Given a more robust arming of the moderate Syrian opposition, given (maybe) 10,000 US troops in Iraq to exercise veto power over Maliki’s default sectarianism, it is possible that the Free Syrian Army displaces ISIS to the west and Maliki’s bridge-building deprives it of support in the east. It is possible. Maybe it is unlikely. But these things did not happen because of the Obama Administration, not the Bush Administration.
However – Iraq will forever be tied to George W. Bush and his Republicans. By the end, they had it mostly right: al-Qaeda was rejected and defeated by its Sunni hosts, sectarian civil war had been avoided, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had crushed his anti-US, Iranian-allied rival Muqtada al-Sadr in a 2008 military offensive. The policy worked. Politically, at that point, it didn’t really matter any more. Support for Bush and the GOP’s handling of Iraq had cratered. Over the past seven years, a consistent 15-20 percent majority of Americans think sending troops to Iraq was a mistake.
That doesn’t mean it was. Foreign policy is a niche interest, and almost by definition engages a tiny minority of Americans. That minority has certain ideas, like using military force to prevent genocide, that are usually unpopular but also not necessarily wrong.
It does mean, however, that the GOP cannot represent only the hawkish viewpoints of that minority. A Presidential primary candidate like Rand Paul, who vociferously opposes involvement in places like Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq, dilutes some of the Republicans’ brand identification with only the hawkish side of foreign policy community.
It helps even if he doesn’t win the primary. Ideological diversity is a hallmark of a “big tent” party, which they all want until they have one. Then it’s a civil war, and crowding out Paul and his supporters – delegitimizing them with televised Cheney truncheons – is completely ahistorical. The Republicans have always had a variety of foreign policy viewpoints, not just those ranging from hawkish to militant. An aggressive, Wilsonian (Reaganite?) foreign policy had always existed side-by-side with a more restrained, businesslike, amoralistic foreign policy.
George H.W. Bush, for example, was hesitant about supporting the reunification of Germany and decided not to overthrow Saddam in the Gulf War. Richard Nixon, at ease with Communist China and General Yahya Khan’s Pakistan, was famously the anti-crusader, so much so that America’s European allies worried that his détente policy with the Soviet Union would leave them out in the cold. Eisenhower, the great commander, stepped well back from the brink when the “rollback” push of Soviet Communism came to shove.
Despite years of propaganda through Radio Free Europe and elsewhere, America did not intervene in Eastern Europe to save Hungarian freedom fighters in 1956. Even George W. Bush came to power promising less overseas adventurism, not more, after the Clinton Administration wandered into Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.
After September 11th, much of that diversity disappeared. Perhaps rightfully so, there was a basic question of why this happened, which had to be answered immediately and with one answer, not five. Bush probably got the correct one: that violent Islamic radicalism was caused by a lack of political freedom in the Arab world. To beat it, that world needed more, by hook or America. It’s still the best explanation anyone’s come up with, and it gained traction in the White House. Hence, Iraq; hence civil society building in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and a major anti-Hezbollah push in Lebanon.
Correct, but inconvenient. That answer’s universalism within the Republican Party elite made it ahistorical, and thus a political weakness. Because while that hawkish viewpoint may still be a majority in the GOP (although I suspect that it is not), it is very definitely a minority among the American public. That’s why issues like domestic NSA snooping catch the Republicans off guard: because the consensus answer from 2003 is not the consensus answer for 2013.
Which is why the Republicans need Paul in their debate. After the Russian’s October Revolution in 1917, and the overthrow of the Provisional Government by a small handful of armed Communist Party members, Lenin said that they had simply picked up the power lying in the street.
If Republicans do not represent within themselves the somewhat weary spirit of the American people, the Democrats will. There is simply too much political power lying in the street. That doesn’t mean they always have to listen to it; it doesn’t mean they have to abide by it; but it does mean that if Senator Paul and Senator Lee and Representative Amash do not have an (R) by their names their voters will not either.
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