GOP Goes Isolationist

At Monday's debate, we learned that the GOP is no longer the party of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. Michael Tomasky on the eclipse of the neocons.

06.15.11 3:02 AM ET

Did you notice at Monday night's Republican debate—of course you didn't; you lead a wholesome life, so you didn't watch it—that when it came time for the candidates to attack Barack Obama on foreign policy, they did so with gusto... from the left? Yes—the GOP has gone soft, friends. They hate freedom. They're from Venus, not Mars. Choose your metaphor. If the white feather fits...

Mitt Romney sounded not so terribly different from Obama on Afghanistan, with the crucial difference that he wants out faster. Michele Bachmann and virtually all of them thundered that we had no need to be involved in Libya, least of all by playing second fiddle to France (a few things don't change). Ron Paul peddled his predictable isolationist wares, and he did so to a rather robust round of applause. Their message with respect to America and the world (except from Rick Santorum, who mounted a lonely defense of our worldwide military presence) was that we should just stay home and forget about it. For a moment there I looked down to check the width of my lapels to make sure it wasn't 1976 and I wasn't listening to Democrats Fred Harris, Mo Udall, and Birch Bayh.

Most pathetically of all, the only time during the entire show that one of the seven started chest-thumping in time-honored Republican fashion about giving fuzzy-wuzzy a whiff of the old grapeshot (note: ironic historical reference, not a slur), it was Tim Pawlenty trying to sound all manly about bombing Yemen: which is to say, about continuing Barack Obama's policy!

This sure isn't the Republican Party of George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Don Rumsfeld. The neocons are gone.

I'm not complaining. I (along with roughly 180 million other Americans) do not pine for the days when our government ginned up phony intel and struck the fear of God into Americans about nuclear-weapons programs and weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist. I am merely observing. And you can be sure that the neocons themselves did not miss this aspect of the performance. Danielle Pletka, neocon stalwart, told Politico that her confederates thought Romney's remarks were a "disaster." Small wonder Bill Kristol speculated recently on a Rudy Giuliani run.  I'm sure Kristol had been expecting that 9/11 could be hauled out for at least two more elections. With Rudy, hope springs eternal.

Now of course, it nearly goes without saying that this evolution on the part of our GOP strivers reflects no deep thought, no searching reconsiderations of long-cherished theories. No one went to a mountaintop and emerged the wiser. Instead, the current posture is the result of more practical considerations.

First, the Republican candidates recognize that the American public—and evidently even their base, which is the interesting part—is getting a heavy case of war fatigue. And second, they're just against whatever Obama is for. So if Obama bombs Libya, they oppose it. Does anyone not taking large doses of Abilify think for a second that if President McCain were in office and leading this Libya operation these candidates would be taking the same position they are now? Why, they'd be out there screaming for ground troops!

So maybe none of this means anything. It's just politics, and when it's convenient for them to switch back to being warmongers, they'll switch back to being warmongers. But isn't it deeply obscene for them to be staking out their positions on war and peace on this basis? (Paul, to be fair, is a principled isolationist, which is a harebrained position but not a dishonest one.) It doesn't help their case that the posture they're adopting now—one that would have the United States ignore the Arab Spring and shrink from involving itself in nudging the world's nations toward more openness and democracy—is exactly the opposite of what many of them were saying four or more years ago.

Thankfully, the GOP has now given the Democrats the opportunity to do something I have long argued they should do: stand firmly for democracy promotion and freedom and show that these things can be done in a manner that's different from the bellicose Bush-Cheney way. Steal those issues away from the Republicans, in other words. These are things the United States should stand for and uphold, just not in the deceitful and spectacularly unsuccessful way that Bush "upheld" them. Especially with Obama having iced bin Laden, this could be an election in which the Democrats actually sound and in fact are the stronger party on foreign policy.

But what the debate really showed is the utter shallowness of today's GOP. On domestic policy, Republicans have exactly two ideas: cut taxes and shrink government. Jobs? Growth? Energy? Innovation? Education? Cut taxes, shrink government. Those are hideously bad ideas that have driven us into the ditch we're in. But at least they're ideas, and at least there are two of them. On foreign policy, they have no ideas. I can understand how people can be critical of Barack Obama's record. But how anyone can take the other party seriously is truly beyond me.