It’s the political version of the butterfly effect: The retirement of a single member of Congress in Orange County, announced this week, has the potential to not only contribute to upheaval in this fall’s midterm elections but to also accelerate a significant diminution of the United States’ role in global affairs.
When Ed Royce was first elected to represent Orange County in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992, George H.W. Bush was president and Royce’s Republican Party had long since shed its post-World War II isolationist tendencies.
As a rank-and-file member of the House and then as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Royce devoted his career to stewardship of the United States’ international responsibilities. He has trained his attention on the threats posed by Iran, North Korea and Russia, has looked for opportunities to strengthen U.S. relationships in Asia and Africa, and has been a stalwart supporter of Israel as well as an advocate for peace in the Middle East.
He may no longer recognize the party that now embraces President Trump’s America First philosophy. Too many of his colleagues are laser-focused on the homefront and don’t seem to believe that our alliances or even our international reputation are of particular importance.
For a generation of voters who supported GOP candidates because of their commitment to stand against fascism, communism and terrorism, this is one of the most bitter pills that the Trump era has forced us to swallow.
But it’s not just Republicans who are in retreat. The Democrats’ fervent espousal for immigration reform has masked their reluctance to engage internationally, as grassroots progressives have become increasingly vocal in their antipathy toward trade agreements, military and security commitments and the role of multinational businesses. It seems the wall builders are winning in both parties.
Even if Royce is replaced by someone who shares his international outlook, he or she will be swimming against the tide.
As for the domestic situation, Royce’s decision is just one in an ongoing series of retirement announcements from Republican congressional incumbents. (His Orange County colleague Darrell Issa announced his retirement on Wednesday.)
The GOP will be defending more than 30 open House seats in November, which suggests a lack of motivation and enthusiasm among the party’s traditionalists.
As the vacancies in Republican districts continue to grow, the likelihood of the GOP maintaining control of Congress will continue to shrink.
Republicans’ coming difficulty in Southern California is not limited to replacing Royce and Issa: They were two of four GOP incumbents reelected in Orange County districts won by Hillary Clinton. The trend here reflects a much more widespread problem for Republican politicians in suburbs throughout the country, as many higher-income, well-educated voters who have reliably supported economically conservative candidates recoil from Trump’s combative brand of populism.
In 2016, these voters supported familiar incumbents like Royce even while turning to Clinton at the top of the ballot, but it will be much harder for a less recognizable Republican to maintain their loyalties this fall. Midterm elections are usually decided less by persuading independent voters than by inspiring committed partisans to vote.
The likely partisan changeover in Washington is of less long-term significance than the worldwide ramifications of the continued U.S. withdrawal from our global responsibilities. Since Trump’s election, competitors such as China and Russia have become increasingly assertive in their respective regions and beyond. As a result of the president’s unpredictability and volatility, our historic allies in Europe, Asia and Latin America now look elsewhere for guidance, reassurance and support. Congressional majorities can switch back and forth every two years. But reliable long-term relationships with world leaders are cultivated and strengthened over much longer periods of time. The loss of trust that can result from a broken promise is not automatically restored after the next election.
A generation of American leaders including former Vice President Joe Biden, Arizona Sen. John McCain and Royce have devoted their careers to carefully developing, fostering and protecting our country’s international reputation. The question is not only who will emerge to repair the damage in Trump’s wake, but also how many years will be required to heal the breach. Without committed globalists like Royce, that task now becomes even more difficult.
Dan Schnur worked on the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and John McCain. In 2011, he reregistered as a No Party Preference voter.