It’s not clear how seriously Republicans will take Robert Costa’s report in National Review Online today that John Bolton is exploring the idea of a run for president in 2016. While the prospect of a candidacy from the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations set off chortles on both the far left and the paleo-con right, Bolton’s interest in the Republican presidential nomination may leave most GOP power-brokers and grass roots activists in early primary states cold. With a deep bench of potential Republican presidential candidates including genuine political stars like Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker and even 2012 retreads like Rick Santorum lining up for the next contest, there doesn’t seem to be much of a market for a Bolton candidacy.
But though the odds are he never makes it to the starting line, let alone the finish line, the idea of a Bolton candidacy is not quite as insane as it may seem at first glance. With many Republicans starting to flock to the neo-isolationist banner put forward by Rand Paul and with many conservative activists now treating the ongoing war on Islamist terror as being not as important as their dislike of Barack Obama, it is arguable that there is no longer a solid Republican consensus in favor of a strong American foreign policy. Though some of the other possible candidates do differ from Paul about the impulse to pull back from a forward posture abroad, none have prioritized that issue. If Bolton is even talking about what would probably be a quixotic run it is only because he knows it is vital for there to be a vigorous debate about foreign and defense policy so as to turn back the Paulite push.
If we had elections for secretary of state, Bolton would be a serious Republican candidate for the job. Though dismissed as a neo-con warmonger by those who prefer appeasement at the UN and apologies to the world rather than a forthright exposition of American values and interests, Bolton’s views on foreign policy are very much in the mainstream of Republican thought. His sensible analyses of foreign policy on Fox News as well as his occasional contributions to COMMENTARY provide eloquent testimony to his expertise on the issues. But not even in wartime are Americans likely to elect someone whose orientation is toward foreign rather than domestic policy. Even in a wide open 2012 GOP presidential field largely populated by easily-dismissed candidates, Bolton’s brief flirtation with a run failed to attract any interest and there’s even less reason to think he’d do any better next time.
But if both Rubio and Ryan decide against running in 2016, there could be no one willing to take on Paul and his increasingly popular inclination to pull back from the world and pretend the Islamist war on the West is none of our concern. Paul is certain to be a first-tier candidate and strong showings by him in primaries and caucuses could encourage other contenders to start to echo him in an attempt to please war-weary and libertarian-inclined voters. That will leave an opening for someone to speak up on foreign affairs, and perhaps Bolton feels it might as well be a candidate who actually understands the issues.
It is to be hoped that Paul will find himself challenged on foreign and defense policy in 2016 by stronger opposition than a former ambassador who isn’t likely to win a delegate. But though it will probably crash before it takes off, the Bolton trial balloon shows us that there is a desperate need for a GOP foreign policy debate that will head off the surge for Paul.