In the last month, conservatives looking for a possible 2016 presidential candidate with a serious approach to defense and foreign policy were starting to wonder if they would be stuck with outliers rather than frontrunners. The only reason why people like former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton and Rep. Peter King—men who are respected voices on these issues but not likely to have a chance at the nomination—were getting even minimal attention for their presidential trial balloons was the fact that all of the likely contenders have been ignoring the question of America’s need to maintain a forward position in the world and in the war on Islamist terror.
Even worse, the increasing popularity of libertarian figures like Senator Rand Paul and, to a lesser extent, Senator Ted Cruz seemed to indicate that the Republican Party was abandoning its long stance as the political bulwark of a strong America in favor of a new isolationism. The willingness of so many Republicans to join Rep. Justin Amash, another libertarian foe of anti-terror measures, in a House vote to abolish the National Security Agency’s phone surveillance program on Wednesday—and the unusual deference they got from House Speaker John Boehner—underlined this concern.
But yesterday a leading figure in the GOP and someone seen as a formidable presidential possibility for 2016 finally fired back at Paul. Speaking at panel at the Aspen Institute, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie denounced the effort to pull back on anti-terror measures as “dangerous” and warned that those—like Paul—who are attempting to craft an American retreat from the world are playing with fire. In speaking in this manner, Christie put himself on record as endorsing the policies of President George W. Bush that have been largely continued by President Obama as necessary, and served notice that Paul will be strongly opposed by Republicans who don’t want their party to be hijacked by isolationists. In doing so, Christie not only indicated that he is prepared to run in part on foreign policy issues but may embolden other possible candidates with similar views to his on this question, like Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan, to do the same.
Paul immediately fired back at Christie saying he’s against terror but only wants to preserve the Constitution. But he’s made it clear that what he wants is a massive pullback of efforts to seek out and fight Islamist terrorists as well as a general retreat from America’s position as a global power with commensurate responsibilities. Paul has tried to call this stance “realism,” but stripped of its rhetorical trappings that attempt to differentiate his positions from those of his crackpot father, former presidential candidate Ron Paul, it is merely warmed-over isolationism. Paul has sought to play upon the war-weariness of Americans after Iraq and Afghanistan to bring this isolationist trend into the mainstream from the margins and fever swamps of the far right and far left, where it has dwelt since before World War II. And to judge by Wednesday’s House vote and his own poll ratings, he’s succeeding.
But as Christie pointed out, anyone who wants to cut back on the Bush/Obama anti-terror measures should come to New York or New Jersey and meet the families of 9/11 victims. Programs such as the NSA metadata mining have helped stop numerous attempts to repeat that atrocity. As Rep. Tom Cotton pointed out on the floor of the House on Wednesday, America is still at war and Republicans who ignore this fact are doing the country as well as their party a grave disservice.
The notion that most grass roots Republicans want the GOP to become the anti-war or the anti-anti-terror party is a fiction. As Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, another member of the panel on which Christie spoke as well as another possible presidential candidate, pointed out, the attempt to transform the Republican Party in this manner is largely the function of “a few loud and vocal people talking in Washington and I don’t think that necessarily reflects where the party is.”
Walker is not only right about that, but his willingness to state this fact should stand as a rebuke to those pundits and politicians who have assumed that all Tea Party supporters are natural allies of Paul and the libertarians. The Republican base believes in limited government and opposes President Obama’s massive expansion of the federal leviathan. But it is not a bastion of isolationism and paranoia about national defense efforts. Most Republicans are capable of making a distinction between the need to cut back on unnecessary governmental intrusions into the public sector and the all-too-necessary responsibility of Washington to provide for the national defense.
Rand Paul may have thought his path to the presidential nomination had no serious obstacles on the foreign policy front, as so many in the top ranks of the GOP leadership seemed to fear to take him on after seeing the way Republicans cheered his filibuster on drone attacks last February. But Chris Christie’s comments as well as those of Scott Walker show that any such confidence is misplaced. It’s a long way until 2016 and there’s no telling who will turn out to be Paul’s chief antagonist on foreign policy. But whoever it turns out to be, the assumption that the libertarians will have the advantage may turn out to be a fallacy.