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What do the Iowa results say about Republican foreign policy?

What do the Iowa results say about Republican foreign policy?

The Iowa results probably indicate that there will not be a big crack-up within the Republican party on foreign policy because the caucus returns are likely to be the high-water mark for the candidate with the most distinctive foreign policy platform in the field: Ron Paul. He did well enough to gain another week of press attention. But in the one contest best-suited to his unusual political operation, Paul did not beat expectations. He would have to really surprise in New Hampshire in order to remain relevant in the later primaries, and those are likely to be even tougher terrain for him. 

Paul is no longer likely to be a spoiler within the party. He can still play the spoiler in the general election, if he runs a Ross Perot-style third party campaign  and siphons off enough of the anti-incumbent vote to re-elect President Obama. There will be many Obama supporters cheering him on to do just that, but at least one influential Paul supporter argues compellingly against it.

Jon Huntsman is the other candidate who tried to capitalize on foreign policy divisions within the party, but he avoided Iowa altogether, thus delaying his moment of truth until next week’s primary in New Hampshire. Predictions in this campaign season have been notoriously unreliable, but I am willing to bet that New Hampshire will be more of a Waterloo than a surge for Huntsman.

That means that Romney will very likely be the nominee, and whichever runners-up remain in the race to challenge him through a few more primaries will be doing so on the basis of domestic or economic policies or personality, not national security and foreign policy. Romney already had the strongest foreign policy platform of the field, and, if I am right about the fading of Paul and Huntsman, any remaining rivals — even a surprise new not-Romney drafted from the bench — will largely echo him on foreign policy.

There had always been a chance that the primaries would exacerbate the within-party divisions on national security, which are wider today than they have been since Reagan. A majority of Republican voters continue support the traditional "peace through strength" posture of muscular internationalism that characterized the tenures of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush (yes, there were differences across those administrations, but I would argue far more continuity than is popularly credited). A sizable minority shows more sympathy for steps ranging from retrenchment to neo-isolationism. Paul was the candidate that resonated most effectively with the latter group, but his positions were probably too extreme to serve as the foundation for a new Republican consensus. In any case, he would have to be considered a plausible candidate to win the nomination to further that debate, and I think that moment has passed.

There are still policy divisions: some Republicans think there should be essentially no cuts in defense spending, while others are willing to live with the first round of Obama cuts; some Republicans want more of a populist message on Chinese trade policy, while others want more of a traditional free trade posture; and so on.

But I think the big intra-party fight over foreign policy is over, if it ever really began.