For the past generation, Republicans have been able to argue with justice that their party is more consistently pro-Israel than that of the Democrats. That wasn’t just the result of President Obama’s antagonism toward Jerusalem and George W. Bush’s friendship. Rather, it was an acknowledgement that a significant portion of the influential left wing of the Democrats was hostile to the Jewish state, while those few Republicans who were not friends of Zion had been marginalized. While Pat Buchanan had been more or less kicked out of the GOP in the 1990s, left-wingers like the ones who booed the adoption of a platform plank on Jerusalem at the Democratic National Convention this year were numerous and not without a voice in the party’s councils. But that may be about to change.
Republicans are congratulating themselves on breaking the 30 percent mark in their share of the Jewish vote this year, even though they could point to Barack Obama’s problematic relationship with Israel. As I pointed out on Wednesday, anyone who assumes the GOP will continue to gain ground among Jewish voters needs to remember that they won’t have that advantage four years from now. But the really bad news is that the coming battle for the soul of the Republican Party will make it clear that a significant portion of the GOP probably shouldn’t be characterized as part of the pro-Israel consensus. With the retirement of Rep. Ron Paul from electoral politics, the baton of the libertarian extremist/isolationist camp will pass to his son Rand, the senator from Kentucky. The younger Paul is more politically astute and probably a lot more marketable to a mainstream audience than his father was. But he is no less opposed to a mindset that sees a strong America and a strong alliance with Israel as integral to U.S. foreign policy than the older libertarian. That makes it entirely possible that under Rand’s leadership, radical libertarians will move from the fever swamps of the GOP to the mainstream. That’s bad news for the Republican Party, and could make their efforts to attract more pro-Israel and Jewish voters even more futile than they have been in the past.
As Eli Lake writes today in the Daily Beast, the coming civil war among Republicans over foreign policy will putt two traditional rival camps — the neoconservatives and the so-called “realists” — on the same side against what could be a rising tide of Rand Paul supporters who believe their small government credo ought to mandate massive defense cutbacks as well as the withdrawal of America from its place on the world stage.
Up until now, this wasn’t much of a contest because although Ron Paul could get throngs of his youthful libertarian crowd to applaud his absurd rationalizations of rogue regimes, such as Iran, or his belief that American imperialism helped generate anti-American terrorism, most Republicans weren’t buying it. But with a leader who doesn’t come across like everybody’s crazy uncle, the libertarian faction has reasonable hopes of doing much better. It’s not outlandish to believe, as Bill Kristol said on Fox News on Wednesday, that Rand Paul is likely to be a first-tier presidential candidate in the 2016 Republican primaries. If so, and I think he may be right, then there will be no question that it will call into question the assumption that there is wall-to-wall backing for Israel in the GOP.
To say that is not to jump to the conclusion that the younger Paul is an odds-on favorite to win the next Republican presidential nomination or that his views reflect those of the majority of Republicans. I think the chances of Paul ever being nominated are slim to none and that is in no small measure due to the fact that his embrace of his father’s foreign policy views — albeit expressed by the Kentucky senator in terms that are more subtle and less likely to be viewed as crackpot theories — will cripple any hope of ever capturing the party leadership.
Some Tea Party activists, like the staffer for Freedom Works who was quoted by Eli Lake as worrying about the possibility that a budget deal would avoid crippling defense cuts, believe their small government ideology requires a complete retrenchment of American defense and foreign policy. While some in the grassroots may share those sentiments, there is every reason to believe that the majority of those who identify with the movement also have traditional conservative views about the importance of American military power. Many also believe it vital that the U.S. maintain its alliance with the only true democracy in the Middle East: Israel.
The idea that the Republican Party will go back to its pre-World War Two embrace of isolationism is based on an imperfect understanding of the party’s base and its core beliefs. To argue, as some on the both the left and the right may, that there is a contradiction between believing in small government on domestic affairs but supporting a strong military, is to ignore that the requirement to “provide for the common defense” of the nation is enshrined in the Constitution that Tea Partiers revere.
Nevertheless, Rand Paul will be far more of a force in the Republican Party in the coming years than his father ever was. That’s a problem for conservatives who hope the GOP remains a bulwark of common sense about national defense and foreign policy. It will also mean that one of the party’s most prominent spokesmen will not be someone who will be viewed as reliably pro-Israel.