The sniping this week between two presumed Republican candidates for president has included cracks about hopeless naïvete, a spat over the mantle of Ronald Reagan and even an insult aimed at Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s hipster glasses.
It was also the opening round of a fight that has many more to go in the years leading to the 2016 Republican nomination.
The dueling opinion columns by Perry and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky suggested that the next GOP contest will have all the niceties of a championship bout, particularly when it comes to a subject which has surfaced in the last several Republican nominating contests: foreign policy.
There are two strands of thought. Most of the prospective presidential candidates adhere to the type of muscularly interventionist approach that defined, for good or ill, the George W. Bush administration. For generations that has been the majority GOP view, and one with which the party routinely has clubbed Democrats, including President Obama, as wimps.
Paul has stood largely alone among the possible candidates in his repudiation of that approach, and for that has been cast as a soft-headed isolationist.
Members of the Islamic State operating in Iraq and Syria represent “a real threat to our national security — to which Paul seems curiously blind — because any of these passport carriers can simply buy a plane ticket and show up in the United States without even a visa,” Perry wrote in the Washington Post. “It’s particularly chilling when you consider that one American has already carried out a suicide bombing and a terrorist-trained European allegedly killed four at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. Yet Paul still advocates inaction.”
He later allied Paul with Reagan-era voices that “promoted accommodation and timidity in the face of Soviet advancement.” (No claims yet of Neville Chamberlain-style appeasement, but the campaign is young.)
Paul, bridling at what he said was Perry’s misrepresentation of his record, looped the governor in with the “let’s intervene and consider the consequences later crowd,” which bore a strong resemblance to Bush and his neoconservative advisors. (Former Vice President Dick Cheney has been among those most fiercely dismissive of Paul’s approach.)
“I ask Gov. Perry: How many Americans should send their sons or daughters to die for a foreign country — a nation the Iraqis won’t defend for themselves? How many Texan mothers and fathers will Gov. Perry ask to send their children to fight in Iraq?” he asked in a column in Politico magazine.
“I will not hold my breath for an answer. If refusing to send Americans to die for a country that refuses to defend itself makes one an “isolationist,” then perhaps it’s time we finally retire that pejorative.”
What makes the debate more than just a lopsided exercise in party definition are the changing views of the Americans who will decide the next presidential nominees.
Republicans remain advocates of a strong military; a Pew Research survey this year indicated that 61% of Republicans felt that strengthening the military should be a top national priority. Little more than one-third of Democrats and independents felt the same way.
But when it came to what to do with that strong military, there were fresh indications that more than a decade of war has dampened the desire for hearty intervention overseas.
Asked whether the U.S. did too much, too little or the right amount for other countries, 52% of Republicans said it did too much, more even than the 46% of Democrats who shared that view.
Overall, asked separately if the U.S. should mind its own business rather than become involved overseas, 52% of Americans said it should mind its own business compared to 38% who disagreed. As recently as 2006, Pew researchers said, those positions had been reversed.
As Paul noted, “Today, the overwhelming majority of Americans don’t want to send U.S. soldiers back into Iraq. Is Perry calling the entire country “isolationist” too?”
Of course, among Republicans there is one exception, and that is Israel. Paul has gone out of his way to emphasize his willingness to defend the Jewish state. That has become particularly important politically with the rise in influence of Christian conservatives — and some key GOP donors — who are among Israel’s firmest allies. A candidacy seen as insufficiently supportive of Israel is likely a stillborn candidacy.
In a July 1 column in the National Review, Paul exhorted others in Washington to back his “Stand with Israel” act and invoked the memory of three Jewish youngsters recently kidnapped and killed.
“I call for all aid to the Palestinian Authority — every penny — to be cut off. Not one more U.S. taxpayer dollar should flow to Hamas or to the Palestinian Authority as long as it is allied with Hamas,” he wrote.
“Some say my position is too hard-line, too strong. To them I say, how many more children must die before it is acceptable to cut off the flow of money to terrorists?”
Another unifying GOP rallying point is Obama — that is, unified opposition to whatever he does. Paul attempted to use that article of faith against Perry when he noted that the only specifics in Perry’s foreign policy missive — gathering intelligence, surveillance and potentially airstrikes — were no different than what Obama and Paul themselves have proposed for Iraq.
“Because interestingly enough, there aren’t that many good choices right now in dealing with this situation in Iraq,” Paul wrote. “Perry says there are no good options. I’ve said the same thing. President Obama has said the same thing. So what are Perry’s solutions and why does he think they are so bold and different from anyone else’s?”
Both writings spoke to a campaign season focused less on detailed policy proposals than on honing, by a bitter back-and-forth, an image of leadership.
“Paul is drawing his own red line along the water’s edge, creating a giant moat where superpowers can retire from the world,” Perry mocked.