In 1976, a conservative insurgent named Ronald Reagan ran for president as a national security hawk against the weak-kneed foreign policy of a GOP establishment that had presided over the “collapse of American will and the retreat of American power.” Peace, Reagan declared, “does not come from weakness or retreat.”
Today, it seems, the roles are increasingly reversed. Too often, conservative insurgents are the ones advocating the “retreat of American power,” while those championing robust U.S. leadership in the world are the members of the besieged Republican establishment.
Republicans have a “squishy hawk” problem.
Most of the major GOP voices defending the National Security Agency and drone strikes, fighting Obama’s defense cuts and advocating strong U.S. leadership in the world — folks like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Buck McKeon and Peter King — are great on national security, but not exactly on the cutting edge of the fight for limited government. By contrast, many of those advocating isolationist retreat — such as Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Justin Amash — are conservative insurgents who came to office by challenging the GOP establishment.
The fiscal hawks are foreign policy doves, while the foreign policy hawks are fiscal doves.
The problem is, the conservative base is a lot more focused on the national debt than national security — so when the two factions clash, they often side with the people they sent to Washington to clean up the fiscal mess.
A case in point was the recent spat between Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Christie was absolutely correct when he called Paul’s isolationist views “dangerous” and challenged him “to come to New Jersey and sit across from the [Sept. 11] widows and the orphans and have that conversation.” But this was the same Chris Christie who alienated grassroots conservatives with his over-the-top pre-election “bromance” with President Obama, and by blasting House Republicans as “disgusting” for trying to strip pork from the Hurricane Sandy relief bill. Who do you think most conservatives sided with in that dispute?
And when McCain called Paul, Cruz and Amash “wacko birds” for their opposition to Obama’s drone policy, they embraced it as a badge of honor. Amash tweeted “Bravo, Senator. You got us. Did you come up with that at #DinnerWithBarack?” The Senate Conservatives Fund, which backs conservative insurgents, even set up a Web site, www.wackobirds.com, to capitalize on the exchange. Score another one for the insurgents.
The danger is that, as isolationist insurgents continue to clash with establishment hawks, the GOP grassroots will increasingly associate a robust conservative internationalism with establishment squishiness on the domestic issues they really care about.
What the GOP needs are more authentically conservative voices on national security who care about cutting spending and defending the United States. Fortunately, there are some rising stars in the GOP who fit the bill.
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) was elected with the tea party class of 2010 and was ranked by National Journal as one of the top 10 most conservative members of that unprecedentedly conservative class. Like Rand Paul, Pompeo describes himself a constitutional conservative. But unlike Paul, he is an Army veteran and a West Point and Harvard Law graduate, who points out that under the Constitution “the only exclusively federal task is national security. Period. Full stop.” Pompeo supports eliminating entire federal agencies. He also supports NSA surveillance, Guantanamo Bay, drone strikes against Americans who fight for al-Qaeda — and robust U.S. leadership in the world. He says the GOP needs more of what he calls “total hawks” — full-spectrum conservatives who want to attack both al-Qaeda and the national debt.
Another rising GOP star and “total hawk” is Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). After Sept. 11, Cotton joined the Army, declining offers for a direct commission as an Army JAG (as a Harvard Law graduate) to volunteer as an infantryman. He was deployed to Baghdad in 2006 as a platoon leader, where he led daily combat patrols, and later to Afghanistan, where he helped lead a Provincial Reconstruction Team in a Taliban-infested region and earned a Bronze Star. He was elected to Congress in 2012, where he had become a leader on national security and is now challenging his state’s Democratic senator, Mark Pryor. If he prevails, he will become a much-needed champion of conservative fiscal and foreign policies in the Senate.
Cotton believes that the majority of grassroots conservatives still support the Reagan vision of peace through strength. “I still believe, based on my experiences, that most Republicans (and independents) still believe in American strength and confidence in the world,” he told me.
To appeal to those voters, and challenge the rising isolationism in the party, Republicans need to recruit and elect more “total hawks.” Republicans need more combat veterans in Congress who understand, as Reagan did, that victory in both the war on terror and the battle to reduce our national debt “does not come from weakness or retreat.”
We need more Mike Pompeos in the House and more Tom Cottons in the Senate.