As with marijuana and gay marriage, Republicans will have to evolve on foreign policy

A Huffington Post poll in January showed that while a majority of Republicans still oppose marijuana legalization and gay marriage, 63 percent of Republicans believe states will increasingly allow more of both by the end of this year.

In other words, the writing is on the wall.

Young Republicans break significantly with older conservatives on both issues. A New York Times/CBS News poll in February showed that, “56 percent of Republicans under age 45 indicated support for same-sex marriage rights, compared with just 29 percent among older Republicans.”

A plurality of conservatives at the always youth-dominated Conservative Political Action Conference this year also said they supported legal marijuana in the event’s annual survey, reflecting the overall national trend on this issue.

Many older Republicans might not like the fact that marijuana and gay marriage are becoming legal or mainstream—but many also sense that the GOP can’t be the anti-marijuana or anti-gay marriage party and expect to win elections.

The GOP can’t be the war party either.

Many Americans believe that President Obama has had a poor or weak foreign policy. Some Republicans take this to mean that they must be stronger by doing more militarily—in Syria, in Libya, in Iran, in Ukraine, in Afghanistan and even Iraq.

But regarding each of these hotspots, the last thing Americans want is a more hawkish approach.

Americans overwhelmingly opposed President Obama’s desire to carry out a U.S. military strike against Syria last year. Most Americans opposed Obama’s military actions in Libya in 2011. Americans support diplomacy with Iran over U.S. military intervention by a 2-1 margin. More Americans are more worried that the U.S. will get too involved in the Ukraine-Russia situation than they are that President Obama won’t take a stronger stance.

The notion that America should do less around the world has reached a 50-year high. In February, Gallup reported that a majority of Americans now view the U.S. war in Afghanistan as a mistake. A majority also believes the Iraq War was a mistake.

Who doesn’t think Iraq and Afghanistan were mistakes?

2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said it was the wrong decision to end the Iraq War. 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain thinks both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars should be permanent, that the U.S. should go into Libya, Syria and Iran (just for starters) and that all Republicans should agree with him.

In February, Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor echoed McCain by blasting “isolationist sentiment” within his party. Republican House Speaker John Boehner wants the U.S. to take more action in Iraq. Senator Marco Rubio told the crowd at CPAC this year that it was America’s role to be the world’s police. Paul Ryan’s major foreign policy speech during the last election was called a “neocon manifesto” by the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, for basically defending and promoting the Bush-Cheney foreign policy legacy.

Many today consider that legacy and the Iraq War not only a mistake, but one of the worst blunders in American foreign policy history.

bush cheney look downIn January, Real Clear World’s (and Rare Contributing Editor) Jeremy Lott posited that any credible future Republican presidential candidate must be able to say, “I believe war in Iraq was a mistake.” Some conservatives disagree. Some Republicans still praise that war as “noble and just.”

Unlike most Americans, few Republicans leaders or pundits will call it a mistake, which leads voters to question if the GOP has even learned from its past mistakes.

Some haven’t.

In this light, Lott makes a particularly important point. Just as an anti-pot, anti-gay marriage perception of the GOP promises to undermine the party’s success, to the degree that voters perceive Republicans as the party that would fight the Iraq War all over again if given the chance—in Iran, Syria or even Iraq again—damages the Republican brand.

In the recent war of words between Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz over foreign policy and the situation in Ukraine, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru observed, “For all the talk of rising Republican isolationism, (Paul) knows full well that he is an outlier in his party.”

This may be true. It was also true that Republicans who supported gay marriage were once outliers in their party. It was once true that Republicans who supported legal marijuana found themselves in the minority of the GOP. It was once true that Republicans who supported civil liberties and privacy rights over the national security state were outliers, as conservatives now rally to defend the Fourth Amendment and the Republican National Committee condemns the National Security Agency.

Things change.

But if GOP leaders now insist that the only acceptable Republican foreign policy is Bush-Cheney style neoconservatism, it is the Republican Party that will increasingly find itself as an outlier among the American electorate.

Americans might find Obama’s foreign policy wanting, but part of the reason he was even elected in the first place is because so many Americans rejected Bush’s foreign policy.

It’s true most people don’t vote on foreign policy. But the same could be argued concerning issues like marijuana legalization or gay marriage. Being on the unpopular side (or wrong side of history) on any of these issues would certainly damage the GOP on some level at a time when Republicans are desperate to grow their ranks.

The current debate within the Republican Party between hawks who still can’t see any fault with Bush’s foreign policy and libertarian-tea party Republicans who want to do less around the world is a necessary one that goes far beyond the issue of foreign policy itself—it is about whether Republicans intend to become a party that can govern nationally again.

19-year-old Anna Page attended the Conservative Political Action Conference this month and told The New York Times, “support for same-sex marriage was now a matter of ‘pure statistics’ among millennials. ‘If the party wants to move forward and appeal to our generation they have to appeal to the majority to succeed,’ Ms. Page said.”

Like marijuana, like gay marriage, the country is changing significantly on the issue of foreign policy.

To win, Republicans will have to change with it.

From authoritarian to libertarian: How the GOP is shifting


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