The myth of Republican doves

By Ben Adler
September 19, 2013

From reading the political press these days, one could get the impression that the Republican Party, from top to bottom, has radically altered its principles on foreign policy. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), an isolationist, is said to be a serious contender for the 2016 GOP nomination. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum have recently come out against military intervention in Syria, as have Tea Party heroes Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fl) and Ted Cruz (R-TX).

Last week the Hill reported:

“A decisive vote against President Obama’s plan for strikes in Syria would cement a sharp shift by the Republican Party away from the hawkish military posture it adopted after the terrorist attacks that occurred 12 years ago this week.”

Even some steadfast Republican hawks agree. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) told the Hill, “It’s probably an indication that the party has become less internationalist and more isolationist.”

But King should know his colleagues better than to think that the majority of them are expressing anything beyond reflexive opposition to President Obama. The politically shrewd approach for the party out of power in Washington is relentless opposition that makes the president look ineffectual, rather than cooperation that makes him look statesmanlike. Republicans’ landslide victory in the 2010 midterms vindicated that strategy. The only way to oppose Obama now is to oppose interventionism. But come 2016, we may see the re-emergence of interventionist Republicanism — and if not before they win back the White House, then surely thereafter.

Polls show that Republican voters remain more hawkish than Democrats, as they have been for decades. Earlier this summer, Republicans were more likely to back the Syria intervention by 10 points, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, and you can be sure that gap would be wider if it were President Romney proposing the bombing. (CNN found virtually identical results to Pew.)

But those numbers have shifted. More recent polling from NBC News shows a decline in public support for attacking Syria, coming entirely from a drop among Republicans. What this suggests is not that Republicans have all suddenly changed their minds about America’s role in the world. Rather, their party leaders have opposed President Obama on everything, and the rank and file have followed suit. As Nate Cohn of The New Republic writes, “The easiest explanation is partisanship.”

Even the main beneficiary of this new partisan alignment, Rand Paul, knows it may be temporary. BuzzFeed’s political editor McKay Coppins raised the possibility of a more substantive realignment in his entertaining profile of Rand Paul last week:

“Paul’s brand of Republicanism has spread deeply within his party. He successfully rallied a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers against a military intervention in Syria; thoroughly embarrassed Republican leaders who supported the air strikes; and temporarily elevated himself to the role of de facto foreign policy spokesman for the GOP…. Paul, in short, is winning.”

But Paul’s victory will be short-lived, as his views have spread shallowly rather than deeply. The evidence is in Coppins’ very next sentence:

“The Syria debate marked the first time since House Republicans tried to keep America out of the Kosovo conflict in 1999 that a libertarian approach to foreign policy seriously challenged the GOP’s old-guard caucus of hawks.”

What did Kosovo have in common with Syria? A Democrat was in the White House. Republicans do sometimes oppose military interventions, but rather than Syria being a shift towards principled pragmatism, it is just part of their tradition, going at least as far back as World War Two, of opposing wars only when their party is out of power.

Both parties tend to favor executive power, military action, and deficit spending when their party is in power and criticize the same things when they are on the sidelines. President George W. Bush ran for president proposing a “humble” foreign policy that would eschew “nation building.” He flip-flopped on that, just as President Obama has become more enamored of extra-constitutional approaches to fighting terrorists now that he sits in the Oval Office. And since Obama took office, congressional Republicans who supported full-scale invasion of Iraq have opposed much more limited interventions in Libya and Syria.

In general, though, one can observe certain tendencies over time: since Ronald Reagan, Republican presidents have run up larger budget deficits, and they tend to support more unilateral military action. That’s why some prominent Republican opponents of the Syria intervention, such as Rick Santorum and Marco Rubio, have simultaneously complained that Obama should have been more aggressive in supporting the rebels while contorting themselves to oppose anything Obama actually proposes. Their stance on Obama’s particular proposal in Syria does not signal a larger shift in their thinking on foreign policy, nor that they will try to out-dove the Democrats if they run for president in 2016. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the most popular Republican politician in the country, has adopted a hawkish foreign policy posture and attacked Rand Paul and libertarianism.

A lot of conservatives are also proudly proclaiming their party’s direction on foreign policy is a result of the rising popularity of libertarian conservatism. But that assumes that Republicans’ shift away from a bellicose foreign policy and towards smaller government is unrelated to which party holds the reins of power. When the other team controls the federal government, rediscovering your long lost small government principles rather than your affection for asserting American power in the Middle East is the opportunistic move.

Does any intelligent observer really believe that if super hawk John McCain had won in 2008 the years since would have seen a move towards foreign policy isolationism in the GOP? As Coppins writes, “Paul acknowledges that his ideas have benefitted from ‘a degree of partisanship’ on the right. Republicans, after all, might not be quite so skeptical of executive power, or outspoken against the ever-expanding surveillance state, once one of their own is in the Oval Office.”

The Paul family’s neo-isolationism is gaining a temporary foothold among congressional Republicans and Tea Party activists for the same reason that those two groups have recently joined the Pauls in opposing routine debt ceiling increases and loose monetary policy. And those fair-weather friends will abandon their newfound principles as soon as the next president they supported takes office.

PHOTO: U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) (L) departs following the weekly Republican caucus luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington June 18, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst


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I pity the rest of the world who are at risk of being bombed depending on which American political party is in power and wants to prove they have ‘cojones’ (‘balls’ to you Americans) and believe that their actions (or refusal to act) will get them elected into power. Dear god save us from the democracy & freedom America wants to give us!

Posted by euro-yank | Report as abusive

I agree with the article — both parties support a strong executive when they’re in control of the white house and oppose it when they are not. However, this does not explain why there was so much more opposition to a Syrian intervention than there was for our Libyan intervention. The difference was that this time the American people decided they’ve had enough — and they called their Congressmen in large numbers to say so. The Republicans are acting in their partisan interests, but they’re also responding to this change in public opinion. We’ve seen a similar trend in public opinion on civil liberty issues in the aftermath of the Snowdon affair. Even with very little media attention, the anti-NSA Amash amendment received broad support in a House vote.

The tricky part is that neither political party is, at its core, libertarian on these issues. So even with public opinion on his side (for now, at least), it should be an uphill climb for Rand Paul to really change the GOP.

Posted by Couves | Report as abusive

The author is not correct and does not have the pulse of the country – and of “conservatives”. I am a veteran who served in the 82nd Airborne and my son served in the 10th Mountain. We were both combat arms soldiers. I am actively in contact with many of my former brothers in arms and most of us are the “stereotypical” ex paratrooper. We are mostly conservative in our value systems – not overly so – and we vote regularly. All of us were heartened by Sen. Paul standing up to an extension of military presence in the Middle East. We served and/or our children serve(d). We are the ones who were separated from loved ones and know first hand how “neo-conservativism” was paid for – by our toil and sweat. We served to defend the country and Constitution – not to make global political points. Many of us now see most of the wars fought in our generation as beyond the scope of the Constitution and while be no means “Isolationist” know that trying to bring about a Pax Americanus is not what this nation needs.

We are tired of Washington D.C’s constant war and wish to return to what Washington said about going to war at the drop of a hat.

Posted by JJDCoach | Report as abusive

Ive got to say, for a supposedly somewhat unbiased writer for a supposedly unbaised news org like Reuters, it irks me when I hear the scary word “isolationist” or “neoisolationist” yet dont call chicken hawks the proper word “neoconservative” which is a self coined term by the intellectual fathers of the movement which gained power mainly in GW Bush admit. Weve never called oursleves isolationists, yet neocons created the word because at the time they couldnt hide from the fact that conservatism is naturally resistent to intervention globalism. Isolationism is painting a North Korea or ultra protectionist gov picture, but intellectually defining Isolation, you cannot be honest and say that neoconservatism is more internationalist than libertarian conservatism, which is what Reagan identified himself before ’81. We want to trade with all nations and be friends. Neocons call themselves “internationalists” yet the main thing that defines them as neoconservative is bombing people and Wilsonian/Ted Roosevelt progressivism, yet that defines them as “internationalist”? Libertarian Conservative accepts the world how it is realistically, not in try to shape it in a utopia created by imperfect flaw likely humans, whilst these “mishaps” in this adventurism actually kills people and destroys wealth and moral highground. We are not isolationists in any sense of the actual definition. We dont believe in sanctions and unfair trade agreements that benefit the few, which is isolationism. True neoconservatism had two fathers and two directions. Irving Kristol was staunchley anti communist and liberal with domestic/fiscal policy, while Norman Pedhoretz was all about Israel and focused on ideology based on “conservative former liberal jews” and believing whats good for Jewry as a whole was how a neoconservative think and that meant full devotion and loyalty to Israel as a Jewish American citizen.

Posted by lukeking999 | Report as abusive

Then turn your thinking around 180 degrees – is Obama “obstructionist” on the immigration mess? Or is it that he and the Dems want more votes?

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

You make some good points, but the implication is that Republicans are still the party of “War” and Democrats aren’t. The flaw in that logic is that while the non-interventionist (no, it’s not isolationism) faction of the Republican party is able to prevent war during a Democratic presidency, why isn’t the Democratic party able to do the same thing during a Republican presidency?

Posted by 007brendan | Report as abusive

Flip the parties and prez. in the article and you have historical symmetry.

Posted by JP007 | Report as abusive

Rand Paul is a Libertarian running as a Republican and I believe that he is sincere in his beliefs whether or not I agree with him on an issue.
Most of the Republican party, however, just wants to oppose Obama and obstruct in any way he can. No where is this clearer than on Syria.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive