Historically, conservative Republicans have tended to agree on national security far more than they disagree. But a series of events in recent weeks have suggested the outlines of a fateful intra-Republican foreign policy debate going into 2016.
Just last week, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) gave a major foreign policy address in Louisville, Kentucky, in which he insisted that the United States "cannot retreat from the world." Rubio's speech was a ringing affirmation of conservative internationalism - the idea that the United States must engage internationally, but on American and conservative terms.
Several weeks before that, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) gave a significant speech at the Heritage Foundation, where he laid out what might be called, generously, an anti-interventionist alternative. Paul called in that speech for foreign policy realism, and a "balanced" approach toward international affairs, all of which sound great in the abstract. But whenever Paul gets specific, which he didn't really do that day, his gut inclination always seems to be paring back U.S. military and diplomatic engagement overseas. At heart, it's hard to believe that Rand Paul is a Kissinger-style realist, interested in maintaining geopolitical balances of power. He's a gut-level anti-interventionist, his father's son, but with a greater sense of political pragmatism. It may or may not be unfair to call him a full-blown isolationist - he spurns the label - but he is certainly a useful vehicle for isolationists, who have been marginal within the Republican Party for almost 60 years now.
What's interesting about this contrast between Paul and Rubio is that both of these men are each favorites not only of many conservative Republicans, but of Tea Party activists. Indeed, at the CPAC meeting earlier this year, Paul and Rubio were by far the top-polling potential presidential candidates for 2016, earning 25% and 23% of the vote respectively. This in itself should debunk at least one common misperception regarding the Tea Party, and indeed the GOP's conservative base more generally: namely, that grassroots conservatives are isolationist. It would be more accurate to say that GOP conservatives outside the Beltway, including Tea Party supporters, tend to be staunch American nationalists who value U.S. national sovereignty, a strong military, and an unyielding approach toward enemies of the United States. To be sure, the national mood right now is one of considerable fatigue with military interventions overseas. And this is precisely what gives Rand Paul an opening on those issues. But the debate between Republican internationalists and Republican isolationists - such as they are - goes on and will continue to go on within the conservative movement, and within the Tea Party.
This is what the mainstream press does not understand. It is simply not the case that most conservative tea party supporters are "isolationist." Many are really pretty hawkish on national security issues. And this is precisely what gives Rubio an opening, too. It would be one thing if the base of the Republican Party was overwhelmingly anti-war, dovish, and inclined toward military cutbacks and disengagement across the board. But we already have one party in this country whose base fits that description. They are called Democrats. So in a way, when it comes to foreign policy at least, Rand Paul is in the wrong party.
This is not to say that Paul is incapable of making a strong run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Obviously, he has a much better sense than his father did of how to talk about major policy issues so as to reach out, rather than alienate potential supporters. His filibuster on the issue of drone strikes, for example, was a stroke of political genius. No doubt many conservatives rallied to him at that particular moment because they were simply happy to see someone stand up to President Obama in dramatic fashion. But the funny thing about that spectacle, which had even mainstream Republicans chiding John McCain for his "wacko birds" comment, was that McCain got it right on the substance of the matter. If a U.S. citizen is plotting violent insurrection against the American people, then the president of the United States has every right to use force to prevent it, anywhere. Just ask Abraham Lincoln.
GOP isolationists - or anti-interventionists, as they like to be called - argue that the American public is so sick of the memory of Iraq, and of Republicans generally, that they will only embrace a GOP presidential candidate who outflanks Obama from the left, by calling for U.S. military disengagement worldwide. I'm not so sure.
The general public is certainly tired of foreign entanglements right now. But the most common feeling is one of ambivalence, rather than a stark desire to pack up and come home from international engagements altogether. And these things move in cycles. Obama has planted the seeds of multiple international security challenges, perhaps unintentionally, by downplaying their significance, and kicking the can down the road, from defense cuts, to Iran, to Afghanistan. But this doesn't make the challenges go away. That's exactly what Rubio was suggesting the other day, when he traveled into Rand Paul's home state to make the point. Historically, when security challenges pile up, then a strategy of denial - like the one Obama is currently pursuing - only works for so long. At some point, international realities punch through, not only into the awareness of policymakers, but into the awareness of the general public. And when that happens, the characteristic response of Americans, once sufficiently fed up, is to counterpunch.
Rand Paul is saying: let's continue to disengage. Rubio is saying: it's time to counterpunch. This is what conservatives will debate going into 2016. And it is hardly obvious that Rubio will lose.