It’s Party Time

Historian Lewis L. Gould says that James Traub is taknig the Republican contendors too seriously.


James Traub’s excellent essay on the Republican presidential candidates and their approach to foreign policy (“The Elephants in the Room,” November 2011) needs modification in only one area. The various Republican candidates are not trying to set out a consistent foreign policy in any meaningful sense. The attacks they level at the president are intended, rather, to demonstrate to the GOP base that they are the nominee to take out the president in 2012.

The upshot is that the Republicans don’t really know what they think except that if President Barack Obama is for it, they are against it. This past fall, Herman Cain seemed the beneficiary of such sentiment even though his foreign-policy views barely rose to the level of attitudes.

This is not the first time Republicans have struggled when Democratic incumbents have had a creditable record on world affairs. In 1916, Charles Evans Hughes never found an answer to the simplicity of the Democratic appeal on behalf of Woodrow Wilson: “He kept us out of war” (a claim that quickly proved false). In 1940, Wendell Willkie could not get traction against Franklin D. Roosevelt until he charged at the end of the campaign that FDR was planning to lead the country into World War II. Willkie later dismissed the allegation as “a bit of campaign oratory.” Eight years later, Thomas E. Dewey could not make the case for Harry Truman’s failings in the diplomatic sphere in the face of the Marshall Plan and other programs. A year later, after the fall of China and the emergence of anti-communist fervor, the Republicans would discover richer pickings against the Democrats. Like their historical predecessors, the modern-day aspirants for the nod of the Grand Old Party want to first oust what they see as an illegitimate incumbent and then figure out what to do in terms of foreign policy.

Author, Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans
Austin, Texas

James Traub replies:

I hope I didn’t give the impression that I think most of the Republican candidates have done any serious thinking about the world. Anyone who watched the Nov. 12 GOP foreign-policy debate would know that Herman Cain and Rick Perry, to mention the two most egregious examples, have a grasp of world affairs that would embarrass a moderately well-educated eighth grader (though both Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, have actual, self-consistent convictions). It’s telling that all of Lewis L. Gould’s well-chosen examples precede the full onset of the Cold War. Ever since that time, Democrats have had to prove, often by way of unnecessary wars or extravagant rhetoric, that they are not “soft.” President Barack Obama may have inoculated himself by killing Osama bin Laden, but he is also the beneficiary of a deep sense of exhaustion with the unnecessary wars and extravagant rhetoric of a Republican predecessor.

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