Michael Steele Flap Reveals GOP Debate Over Isolationism

Michael Steele pulled back the curtain on an old debate in Republican circles: How isolationist should the GOP be? John Avlon on the rift that threatens the party’s chances in 2012.

The Michael Steele Show will keep on running through the fall, despite his Afghanistan-is-Obama’s-War gaffe, which drew immediate calls for his resignation from neo-conservatives like Bill Kristol and Co. and a spirited defense from the libertarian Congressman Ron Paul.

But this latest distraction was deeply revealing. It exposed the growing influence of a grassroots neo-isolationist movement that is springing up as a backlash to both Presidents Bush and Obama, while reviving an old debate thought long-dead within the Republican Party between the isolationists and the internationalists.

One bumper sticker I saw summed up the whole philosophy/psychology: “Paper money => Bubble => Recession => Stimulus => Inflation => Price Controls => Shortages => Riots => Troops on Your Streets.”

It’s a grudge match last fought in 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated Senator Robert Taft in the GOP primary and then won the presidency, returning the White House to Republican control for the first time in 20 years and committing the nation to a bipartisan policy of international engagement.

Now those old fault lines are festering again, encouraged most prominently by Ron Paul and Glenn Beck. Think back to their starring roles at CPAC last January, with speeches that dragged Woodrow Wilson out of mothballs, beat him about the head and neck, and blamed him for the decline of the constitutional republic—or as Beck would say, “the cancer of progressivism.” But the real hit on Wilson was the international interventionist approach to foreign policy—making the world “safe for democracy”—which still bears his name. It’s a legacy that FDR embraced, Ike moved into the GOP mainstream, Reagan used to win the Cold War, and George W. Bush took to new heights with Afghanistan and Iraq.

With a long war hangover, however, a Pew Research Study from last November found that “Isolationist Sentiment Surges to Four-Decade High.” Roughly half of Americans agreed with the statement that the U.S. should "mind its own business internationally," while 44 percent said "we should go our own way.” Less than 20 percent felt the same way in 1964. Perhaps most troubling, the poll found that people under 30 are more likely to hold this view.

The young Paul-ites who manned the ramparts at CPAC—and delivered a stunning victory for him in the straw poll over Establishment favorite Mitt Romney—are an edgier sort that the coat-and-tie Buckley-ite young conservatives of an earlier generation. This was the antiwar crowd by way of Ayn Rand, organized under the banner of Young Americans for Liberty. Their signs protested the Patriot Act, proclaimed that “gun registration is a gateway drug,” and of course argued we should “End the Fed.” One bumper sticker I saw summed up the whole philosophy/ psychology: “Paper money => Bubble => Recession => Stimulus => Inflation => Price Controls => Shortages => Riots => Troops on Your Streets.” One of their sponsored lectures at CPAC declared Abraham Lincoln a “foe of liberty” for suspending habeas corpus and other assorted anti-Confederate sins; affiliated magazines asked “Has the Communist Manifesto Replaced the Constitution?," while another offered an admiring multi-page profile of Senator Robert Taft, which has to be a first for this millennium.

Nicknamed “Mr. Republican” for his staunch partisan conservative beliefs—a starched traditionalism that combined anti-New Deal fiscal policy with isolationism—Taft is making an unexpected comeback in the Obama era.

It was Taft, son of former president William Howard Taft, who declared at the outset of World War II that “war is even worse than a German victory.” He more sonorously defended his beliefs after the war, saying on the Senate floor that “the principal purpose of the foreign policy of the United States is to maintain the liberty of our people… Its purpose is not to reform the entire world or spread sweetness and light and economic prosperity.” These are the sorts of quotes currently celebrated online by the Robert A. Taft Association for Old Conservatism for Today. Taft, a defender and admirer of Joe McCarthy, wrote that “We are certainly being dragged toward war and bankruptcy and socialism all at once”—a line that could have been lifted from the latest Glenn Beck broadcast.

The especially bitter 1952 primary fight between Ike and Taft pitted the general-election favorite against the play-to-the-base purist. The centrist former Allied commander was somehow attacked by conservatives as “the candidate of effeminates” (in a precursor to today’s “squish” slur). And in an early RINO-hunting frenzy, his campaign was dismissed as “Republicans for Truman.” Ike was no fan of either Taft or Sen. Joseph McCarthy, writing in his diary that both were “disciples of hate,” but he shared conservatives’ outrage over the then-$14 billion budget deficit. Their real disagreement came down to foreign policy; Ike was considered a sellout for having prosecuted the war under Democratic Presidents FDR and Truman. He had most recently been tasked with establishing NATO, that entangling international alliance which presaged what is now called the New World Order. The founder of the now-resurgent John Birch Society, which co-sponsored this year’s CPAC, infamously called Ike “a dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.” But Eisenhower’s victory seemed complete, until now.

While Glenn Beck is the most influential media figure of the Tea Party movement, Ron Paul is the most influential politician, at least in terms of providing an intellectual tradition. His self-styled constitutional libertarianism is fueling grassroots conservatism with an ideologically coherent critique of both Bush and Obama, against foreign wars and the growing federal debt. It answers anxieties about globalization that sometimes bubble up as conspiracy theories which can be filed under “one-world government.”

His son Rand Paul rode the Tea Party wave (and the family name) to a GOP primary victory for the Kentucky Senate seat against the Mitch McConnell-picked candidate. His website states that “today, America is often subservient to foreign bodies such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization, and the United Nations.” Likewise, Nevada GOP Senate nominee and Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle defeated the Establishment candidate armed with a website that opined "The U.N. continually threatens U.S. sovereignty, with endless rhetoric and treaties and it has now become the 'umpire' on fraudulent science, such as global warming. The United States needs to withdraw from the United Nations."

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While the neo-isolationists can form a fusion with the paleo-conservatives who consider Pat Buchanan their living mascot, they are at odds with the Republican Party foreign-policy establishment that won the Cold War under Ronald Reagan and prosecuted the War on Terror under George W. Bush. It is a deep and potentially unbridgeable rift because, ironically, the neo-isolationist impulse on the far-right shares many of the same principles as the reflexively antiwar far-left, prompting columnist and scholar Victor Davis Hanson to write, “No wonder a Noam Chomsky now often sounds like a Ron Paul or The Nation sometimes apes The American Conservative.”

Short-term partisan calculus will likely cause Republican leaders to encourage an uneasy alliance with the neo-isolationists because they hope to benefit from their aggressive dislike of President Obama in the mid-term elections. But their increased influence on the GOP could prove disastrous for a serious 2012 presidential nominee who will have to campaign as being “strong on national security” and confront an ongoing non-optional war against Islamist terrorism. Sixty years after the Eisenhower vs. Taft primary, the debate will be the same—internationalism or isolationism—and so will the stakes: General-election victory or defeat.

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.