It’s too early to conclude much about the Republican presidential field—whether it will prove to be the strongest since 1980, as some say, or is beginning to resemble the carnival show of 2012, with its pileup of fringe figures and novelty acts (Ben Carson? Carly Fiorina?). But at the upper levels of the conservative movement, where, in William F. Buckley Jr.’s formulation, “Rhetoric is the principal thing. It precedes all action,” one change is striking: The hopelessly fractured party of the Obama years, beset by internal discord and ideological division—“the establishment” vs. the “insurgents,” the ins vs. the outs, beltway “appropriators” vs. budget hawks, deal-making Senate compromisers vs. inflexible House purists—sounds once again like the well-oiled, unified-message machine of old.
The message itself is coming through clearly—at the “summit” of presidential hopefuls last month in Nashua, N.H., where Ted Cruz roused the audience with his vow to “destroy” ISIS, and last week in Greenville, S.C., where Marco Rubio demanded that “the strongest military power in the world” resume its cocky posture and put its enemies on notice (“We will find you and we will kill you,”) and Scott Walker lamented the lack, in Obama, of “a leader who is willing to take the fight to them before they take the fight to us.”
If it all sounded familiar, so does the revived fervor for “moral clarity” and “the American idea,” not to mention promises of a (tax-free) military buildup and an attitude of indifference bordering on contempt for every ally but Israel.
It is the language—need it be said?—of George W. Bush, who is suddenly relevant again. Not that he ever really went way. Well, he did, but his policies didn’t, to the consternation of liberals and satisfaction of conservatives. Two years ago, Charles Krauthammer happily reminded us just how much of Bush’s war on terror is still in place: “indefinite detention, rendition, warrantless wiretaps, special forces and drone warfare, and, most notoriously, Guantanamo, which Obama so ostentatiously denounced—until he found it indispensable.” More bluntly: “Bush’s achievement was not just infrastructure. It was war.”
And George Bush seems to be easing into his new role as GOP war chieftain. He was the star attraction at the Las Vegas gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition, offering a foreign policy tour d’horizon in answers to questions teed up by Ari Fleischer, his former press secretary. Breaking his vow of silence on Obama, Bush said lifting sanctions in Iran would be a mistake, just like the hollow threats in Syria had been (“you gotta mean it”). The remarks were off the record (of course)—but were leaked (of course) to the New York Times by a “dozen” people in the audience.
Bush seemed to grasp the limits of his rehabilitation. He told the Vegas audience he would stay out of his brother’s quest to become Bush 45, lest it do Jeb more harm than good. Jeb, however, has been sending the opposite message. He recently praised George W. to a roomful of financiers at the Metropolitan Club in Manhattan. In particular, when it comes to Israel, as everything seems to these days, “If you want to know who I listen to for advice, it’s him,” meaning George. A spokesman for Jeb later tightened the screw, calling Bush 43 “the greatest ally to Israel in presidential history,” a lodestar to Jeb, who is likewise committed “to standing with Israel in the face of great threats to their security and our own.” Next came Jeb’s interview with Megyn Kelly, in which he said that, even with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, he’d have invaded Iraq too. Amid stinging criticism—from Laura Ingraham, among others—Jeb has since tried to walk it back, while at the same time accusing his critics of dishonoring the war dead. That tactic, too, seems steeped in the belligerencies of George W. Bush.
And it isn’t just Jeb. One Republican after another has either applauded Bush’s foreign policy or made a point of attacking Obama—and Hillary Clinton—in terms like the ones Bush used in Las Vegas. In remarks last week to the Council on Foreign Relations, Marco Rubio, who has said Bush 43 “did a fantastic job as president over eight years,” called for a new president “who will set forth a doctrine for the exercise of American influence in the world.”
For most of the Obama years, George W. Bush was in exile—from his own party. The debates were about budgets, “limited government,” “constitutional conservatism.” Bush, the “big government conservative,” offered no good answers. At the same time, the public was tired of war—the escalating bad news in Iraq under the incompetent, perhaps malevolent Maliki; the Afghanistan quagmire-in-the-making; the Arab spring protests against oppressive regimes American presidents had propped up. Liberals had been making this argument for years. Now conservatives were, too. Rather, libertarians were. They have a long history of opposing foreign wars: World War II, the Cold War, and now “the war on terror.” Ron Paul had denounced the Iraq invasion and the presence of American military bases around the world during his quixotic campaign in 2008, and was ridiculed for it by the hawks John McCain and Rudolf Giuliani. Just two years later, the pair seemed like footnotes, while Ron Paul won the 2010 CPAC poll—and won it again in 2011. When he finished a strong second in the New Hampshire primary in 2012, the laughter finally stopped.
Meanwhile, his son, Rand, the new-generation libertarian, broke through—first with his election to the Senate, in 2010, and then with his filibuster in March 2013, in which he inveighed against the drone campaign. It was the first stirring of life in a party still reeling from Mitt Romney’s drubbing. When Edward Snowden’s revelations came, in June 2013, Rand Paul seized the moment. “Mr. Clapper lied in Congress, in defiance of the law, in the name of security,” Paul memorably said. “Mr. Snowden told the truth in the name of privacy.” A never-published Times poll—commissioned for a profile Jim Rutenberg and I began working on that spring and which came out in January 2014—put Rand Paul first in a field that included Jeb, Rubio, and Chris Christie among self-identified Republican voters. The same poll also found the public had soured on overseas interventions.
What seemed to be developing was something libertarian theorists and writers like Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess had envisioned almost 50 years ago—a left-right alliance that could mobilize on antiwar sentiment along with growing anger at the heavy-handed intrusions of what Rothbard called the “welfare-warfare state” and Rand called “Big Brother government.” In June 2013, when I interviewed Rand in his Senate office, he was optimistic about the shifting dynamic. The neocons were still a force, he acknowledged, but were “less strong since I have been here. I'd say it's almost a 50-50 proposition in the Senate caucus. They're probably still in the majority. But there's much more of a discussion now.”
Two months later, Syria was Topic A. The government was using chemical weapons against its own citizens, and Obama planned airstrikes in Syria. But in the House liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans objected. The public was wary, too. Obama’s finger was on the trigger, but he didn’t pull it. Again Rand Paul seized the moment, pressing Obama to show restraint. “Absolutely he needs congressional approval,” Paul said on Fox News. “The Constitution is very clear on this subject. In fact, James Madison explained it in the Federalist Papers. He said the executive branch is the branch most likely to go to war, therefore we vest the power to go to war in Congress. ... [I]t will be an unlawful act if he actually takes military action without having Congress vote on the issue. ... The American people are not excited about a new war. We are horrified by it.”
That was on August 30. The next day, undercutting Secretary of State John Kerry, Obama said he would ask Congress for a vote. Two weeks later, Kerry began to hammer out an emergency compromise: Syria’s chemical weapons supply would be placed under international control. For the first time anyone could remember, a major foreign policy decision had actually been presented to the public, and the “wacko bird”—as McCain had labeled Rand Paul at the time of his filibuster—was gaining influence, and confidence. “The problem with foreign policy,” Paul explained at a Library of Congress event organized by the Charles Koch Institute, “is that most people think the debate begins and ends when they say, 'Our national security is threatened.' Well, that's the conclusion; that's not a debate.” Paul modestly allowed that he’d played some part in the outcome, in a Senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearing and also in a Republican “caucus” lunch with Obama. He was helping turn the tide against reflexive war—and the public agreed. So things looked in September 2013.
A year later, that budding consensus was coming undone. The world had begun to look dangerous again. ISIS arose out of the ashes of Iraq. Obama, saying that the Iraq pull-out hadn’t really been his idea but the Iraqis’, was now dragged back in, with air strikes. Syria was blowing up, too. And so was Yemen. Few Americans cared about atrocities in the Middle East. But many were shaken by the stream of ISIS videos, the images of beheadings, the stories of moonstruck millennials flooding into jihadist training camps, including “at least 3,400 from Western nations among 20,000 from around the world,” as the Associated Press has reported. In November 2014, Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops and equipment into Ukraine.
A new message was forming: Peril abroad bred danger at home. “Foreign policy is domestic policy,” as Rubio told the Council on Foreign Relations last week, both reflections of “core moral values,” as the New York Times put it. It was essentially the same case that Bush had made—and that Republicans had been making for generations, going back to Joseph McCarthy's clamorous Red hunts and the the widening of Truman’s “loyalty” dragnet (meant to root out subversives) into Eisenhower's “loyalty-security” (meant to chase out unreliables of every description) in 1953. In 2013, “national security” meant gathering “metadata” on citizens—“the surveillance state,” as Rand called it. In 2015, it began to mean something different: “urban unrest,” buildings and cars set ablaze in Baltimore, a shootout with radical Islamists in Garland, Texas, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sentenced to death in Boston. As Baltimore burned, Bill Kristol tweeted:
One possible answer: whoever can grab the mantle of George W. Bush.
There is a very practical reason for Republicans to do so. Bush’s reelection in 2004 is the one bloom of plebiscitary victory in a parched desert of defeats stretching back to 1992. The victory was narrow, but decisive—3 million votes. More important was the steep rise in turnout. Bush, called a “war president” by Karl Rove, got 11.6 million votes more than he had in 2000. (Obama’s in 2012 got 3.6 million less than in 2008.) And the victory wasn’t Bush's alone; his party won, too. Republicans increased their majorities in both the House and the Senate, building on 2002, the rare midterm in which the presidential party gained rather than lost seats. It was those back-to-back elections that had Karl Rove and other heralds giddily imagining a “permanent majority” for the GOP. It was the party’s last sustained triumph, and Republicans will look hard at how Bush got there, how he, of all people, joined Eisenhower and Reagan as the only two Republicans to serve out two full terms since an exhausted Ulysses S. Grant slunk away from Washington in 1877.
Grant and Eisenhower, Reagan and Bush. Each was in his own way a warrior—two of them generals, the others citizen-soldiers who led global crusades, first against communism, and then against “Islamo-fascism.” “War is the health of the state,” the socialist Randolph Bourne observed a century ago. It has also been the health of the modern Republican Party. And if Jeb, Rubio, Cruz, and Walker have all coalesced around a single foreign policy voice, it’s because the party has decided it doesn’t want, and can’t afford, a debate of the kind Rand Paul might prefer.
Sixty years ago, the Republican party had such a debate—or rather a battle for its soul, in the first years following World War II. Heartland leaders—the Robert Tafts (on the right) and Robert LaFollettes (on the left)—disagreed about much (labor unions, social programs, taxation). But both opposed U.S. intervention in the European war in 1939-1941. Conservatives and “individualists” did too. Charles Lindbergh was a hero to many on the right, including the teenage William F. Buckley, and to his entire family. The baseline argument of “isolationism” or “non-interventionism” (take your pick) wasn’t peace and love, but the opposite, America First strength, built on distrust of “entangling alliances” with corrupt foreign nations, and dislike of exorbitant, spirit-taxing taxes. The cold war, when it came, didn't change this thinking. If Nazi Germany hadn't posed a danger, neither did the Soviet Union. “The important thing for America now,” one of Buckley’s mentors, Frank Chodorov, the libertarian sage, counseled readers of The Freeman in 1954 (after Korea had ended and with Vietnam looming next) “is not to let the fearmongers (or the imperialists) frighten us into a war which, no matter what the military outcome, is certain to communize our country.”
But a counter-argument was taking shape. Its adherents insisted that Stalin’s Russia was indeed a more immediate threat than Nazi Germany. Very few Americans had embraced Nazism and its master-race dogma. But Communism, though equally “statist,” made a different and more insidious appeal—to liberals and leftists, the underprivileged and the oppressed. It was on the ideological march, capturing “hearts and minds” in Asia and the Middle East, and even in France and Italy. And in the U.S. too. What had the New Deal been if not domesticated socialism? Why had F.D.R. meekly let Stalin call the shots at Yalta? Who was to blame for the “loss” of China? Meanwhile, Communist moles, some with Harvard pedigrees, had wriggled into the crevices of the State Department. Strong medicine was required, at home and abroad. The 26-year-old Bill Buckley described the stakes in 1952:
The most important issue of the day, it is time to admit it, is survival. Here there is apparently some confusion in the ranks of conservatives, and hard thinking is in order for them. The thus-far invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union does or does not constitute a threat to the security of the United States, and we have got to decide which. If it does, we shall have to rearrange, sensibly, our battle plans; and this means that we have got to accept Big Government for the duration— for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged, given our present government skills, except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.
That year, the Republicans nominated an internationalist, Dwight Eisenhower, over the bitter protests of the Old-Guard rank-and-file. It was Eisenhower who led the party into the modern moment. “He broke the isolationist tradition of his party, which is why he sought the presidency in the first place,” James Reston wrote at the time.
In so doing, he rescued the GOP. A party on the brink of permanent marginalization, rather like the Democrats had been after the Civil War, but instead succeeded in reinventing itself as the party of military and national security “strength.” The key was in Buckley's formulations about rhetoric preceding—or trumping—action. Truman’s foreign policy mandarins, George Kennan and Dean Acheson, favored Soviet “containment.” Eisenhower’s top strategist, John Foster Dulles, called for “the liberation of captive peoples.” The actual policies scarcely changed—Eisenhower quietly “accepted the basic elements of the strategy Kennan had devised,” John Gaddis writes in his recent biography of Kennan. But the style and tone, including Dulles’s boasts of the “brinkmanship” he practiced, were pitched to the new Republican mood. Its theology was faith in American, or America First, with the interests of other nations, including our allies, shunted aside—and why not, since most were quasi-socialist anyway? One observer, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., smartly analyzed the change in 1952. What looked like brash new Republican internationalism less a repudiation than a variation of GOP doctrine, c. 1939-1941. It was more aggresive, more militaristic, more imperialist. But the old America First slogan, “Fortress America,” still applied. “The New Isolationism boggles at the word ‘collective,’ and it recoils from the whole theory of building ‘situations of strength,’” Schlesinger argued. “Its supreme emotional link with the Old Isolationism, for example, is its dislike of allies and its desire for unilateral action by the United States.”
Unilateral action. America First evolved into American Exceptionalism, the chosen nation going it alone. No one else could be trusted: Certainly not the UN, or wobbly partners like England and France—“Old Europe,” in Donald Rumsfeld's pungent phrase. And liberals at home were suspect too. National Review’s foreign policy columnist, James Burnham, an original author of the “liberationist” or “rollback doctrine,” argued that Soviet moles weren't the only problem. Weak-willed policy makers couldn't be trusted either. Just look at the record: “mistaken in their predictions, false in their analyses, wrong in their advice, and through the results of their actions, injurious to the nation.” Washington editor L. Brent Bozell Jr., hoping to rehabilitate McCarthy, a wreck after the Army-McCarthy hearings, wrote a number of speeches for him, incisive analyses of foreign policy. In one, delivered on the Senate floor in 1956, McCarthy warned that the U.S., in its quest for peace, was “lagging far behind [the Soviet Union] in the guided missile race.” It “may well have been the year’s most prophetic speech,” Richard Rovere wrote in his classic book Senator Joe McCarthy. Prophetic, he meant, given what came next: the shock of Sputnik, the Gaither Commission, with its recommendation for upgraded missile systems and the building of fallout shelters. After McCarthy’s death, in 1957, Bozell kept writing speeches—for Barry Goldwater. He also ghostwrote Goldwater’s manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative, published in 1960. The book is best remembered for its promise to end government programs. But its chapter on “The Soviet Menace” accused American leaders of ignoring “our security needs” and of a “belated entry into the hydrogen bomb and guided missile fields.”
In the space of 20 years, the GOP was remade. It now had an updated and coherent foreign policy, built on the sturdy platform of national security—battling appeasers at home and enemies abroad. It was an historic reversal as swift and complete as the Democrats’ shedding of its long years of “dirty hands” accommodations to Jim Crow and its rebirth as the party of civil rights in the 1950s and '60s. The two were simultaneous developments, parallel expressions of the crusading politics of the superpower era. In 1964, even as Democrats rallied behind L.B.J. and his civil rights bill, Republicans embraced cold-war militarism fervor. It was sealed by Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, though few recognized it at the time. All eyes were on Goldwater's fending off of the patrician moderates Nelson Rockefeller, William Scranton, and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., with the resulting transfer of party power from the East Coast to the Sun Belt. But when it came to foreign policy, the so-called libertarian Goldwater was a rock-solid cold warrior, who sounded like a more zealous Rockefeller or Lodge, and rather like the cold-war Democrat John F. Kennedy, who had appropriated Bozell's “missile gap” argument in his 1960 presidential campaign.
Goldwater was crushed in the general election, but the next Sun Belt nominees, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, won—in campaigns being mentioned today as offering battle plans or road maps for 2016, in large part because both nominees were hawks who depicted the incumbent Democratic administration as weak in the face both of aggression overseas and social and cultural disintegration at home—“anarchy & chaos.” Kristol, as it happens, has been on the case since November 2014, when the Ferguson protests turned violent:
Nixon, Cheney, Giuliani: each a spokesman for “the Silent Majority.” The argument was in place before the "urban unrest" of the late 1960s, though that era brought all the passions to the surface—the predations not just of the “underclass” (or “thugs,” in the current epithet), but also of the liberal elite. It was they who sued for peace with the Soviets—nuclear test-ban treaties and arms accords—and then grew knock-kneed in Vietnam, spooked by campus protests. America's liberal ruling class could not be counted on to keep America strong. This was the message that gave Republicans success after success in cold war elections: in 1968 and 1972 and then in three consecutive victories in the 1980s, each a landslide. It made possible the Reagan Revolution. But it ended when the Cold War did, in 1991, during the presidency of the former airman George H.W. Bush, the last “commander-in-chief” who had actually worn a combat uniform. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the Republican war party. Democrats, with the New Deal and the Great Society behind them—the great rash of social programs—seemed the better choice to spend the “peace dividend.”
It was left to one security-minded conservative to warn of the ever-present danger:
As a result of the end of the cold war, the breakup of the Soviet empire, the demise of communism, and the speed and success of our efforts to roll back Saddam Hussein’s aggression in the gulf, we have concluded that the world is a safe place, one that no longer requires the attention of the American people. . . . our first failing was in allowing ourselves and the American people to be lulled into a false sense of security–into believing that all is right with the world and that the end of the cold war as we’ve known it for the last forty years meant it was safe to devote all our time and attention to domestic pursuits. . . . The world is still a very dangerous place. The breakup of the old order is continuing. Moreover, as events of the last few years demonstrate, political trends can quickly and unexpectedly reverse themselves. Unable to eliminate risks, we must hedge against the unexpected.
That was Dick Cheney, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute in December 1993. He went on to accuse Bill Clinton, in office not quite a year, of ignoring foreign policy in order to push for national health insurance to solve a make-believe health care “crisis.”
Twenty-two years later, we can say both were right. There was a health care crisis, and a foreign policy one, too, though not the one Cheney discussed. The first World Trade Center bombing had happened in February, but Cheney didn’t mention it. Stuck in an older groove, he instead warned about the furies unleashed by the newly disaggregated Soviet empire. Communism, or post-communism, remained the GOP’s main foreign policy theme up until 9/11. When the “existential threat” came screaming across the sky that day, Cheney knew what to do, and still thinks he was right. George W. Bush thinks so, too. And so, apparently, does Jeb.
They’re not alone. Bush 43 alums have been reclaiming their places, and their influence, with silent creeping force, like the slow return of the repressed. The neoconservative and Bush administration official Elliot Abrams has counseled Marco Rubio. Paul Wolfowitz, the intellectual architect of the original Iraq invasion, now sits on Jeb Bush’s advisory team—an appointment Bush felt no need to justify (even as he hurriedly distanced himself from the “realist” sage, James Baker, a virtual alter ego to his father, after Baker criticized Benjamin Netanyahu). Jeb has since chosen a national security adviser, John Noonan, a rising star on the foreign policy right, best known for helping write Romney’s speech at the Virginia Military Institute which laid out the case now being made by Republicans from Cruz and Rubio to Lindsey Graham. Under Obama, Romney said a month before election day, “the threats we face have grown so much worse” than under George W. Bush, and “the relationship between the president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel, our closest ally in the region, has suffered great strains.” Today, Republicans says that speech was prophetic. Romney also insisted, during his debate with Obama, that Russia was America’s “top geopolitical threat.” He may well have been right, and it is not only Republicans who have said so
It was the language of the Bush doctrine that Rubio borrowed when he told the Council on Foreign Relations the country needs a president “who will restore our people's faith in the promise and power of the American ideal.”
Rubio could just as well mean the ideal of American power—the two are easily confused, as one candidate has noted:
America already spends nearly as much on defense as every other country on earth combined. Is this necessary? Are all our commitments necessary? What America spends on defense—and it should be asked, how much of this qualifies as actual “defense”?—accounts for almost half of total defense spending. Is this right? We spend billions of dollars keeping and maintaining foreign bases—shouldn’t our allies be shouldering some of the cost, particularly when it comes to their own defense? Much like entitlements, what we spend on our military has long been drastically out of sync with what we can actually afford, producing the same expensive risks that always characterize big government.
That passage appears in Rand Paul’s manifesto, The Tea Party Goes to Washington, published in 2011, after his surprise election to the Senate. The book’s villains include Cheney (who endorsed Rand’s opponent in the Kentucky Senate primary). This was the Paul who drew up a budget that slashed military spending and eliminated all foreign aid, including to Israel. Kristol has said Paul is “more dove-ish” than Obama—the lethal accusation. The instant he declared his candidacy, a $1 million ad campaign was unleashed, its message: “Rand Paul is wrong and dangerous.”
The ads were put together by Rick Reed, who a decade ago created the “Swift Boat” attacks that helped sink John Kerry. Since then Lindsey Graham, preparing his own leap into the 2016 race, has taken up the theme. His parsing of the differences between himself and Paul—“He wants to fight a crime. I’m fighting a war”—echoes Cheney’s warning in 2004 that under a President Kerry “we'll fall back into the pre-9/11 mind-set, if you will, that in fact these terrorist attacks are just criminal acts and that we are not really at war."
Never mind that Paul has been busily calling for increased military spending, has repeatedly sworn his fidelity to Israel and has said, in his best imitation Bush-speak, “I will name the enemy…the enemy is radical Islam.” It’s too late. The lines were drawn long ago. It’s not enough just to agree. There needs to be evidence of faith. What if things briefly go quiet on the Middle Eastern front, or if Putin retreats into his shell? How reliable will Rand Paul be? Not very, to judge by recent moves. He applauded the federal appeals court that smacked down N.S.A.'s phone-data collection and has threatened a new filibuster, this time against reauthorizing key provisions of the Patriot Act. He doesn't seem to get that the national security “conclusion”—or consensus—is now locked into place, and the “discussion” is over. Paul’s rise came at a time when war-thoughts had receded, briefly, from Republican minds. But they are the thoughts, and passions, that produced so many presidential victories, and might produce one more, if the right nominee battles through the primaries and stays unwaveringly on message. Welcome back George W. Bush. Put down the paintbrush and grab the bullhorn. It’s your party again.