When Karl Rove is your white knight in shining armor, your party has a serious problem.
- By John NorrisJohn Norris is the executive director of the sustainable security and peacebuilding initiative at the Center for American Progress and the author of Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism.
There is little from medical literature or science to suggest that the best way to treat the deranged is to humor them and hope they go away. It is in that spirit that we must approach the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) recently held here in Washington and grapple with what it says about the Republican Party’s foreign policy stance.
Clearly, the GOP establishment is eager to have the party look slightly less crazy on everything from foreign policy to women’s issues. Karl Rove has launched a controversial plan to try and weed out unelectable Tea Party candidates from the primary process. Party Chairman Reince Priebus just issued a tough report detailing the party’s many failings in the last presidential election, saying, "There’s no one reason we lost. Our message was weak; our ground game was insufficient; we weren’t inclusive; we were behind in both data and digital; and our primary and debate process needed improvement."
But as the CPAC crowd’s disdain for such ideas as "Republican in Name Only’ made clear, the Washington Republican establishment has lost almost all connection to the party it is supposed to represent. Indeed, if moderation and responsibility are new watchwords for Republican elites, this message was entirely lost on the red-meat speakers at the CPAC podium.
Consider some of these gems from the weekend. Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert argued that "Vietnam was winnable, but people in Washington decided we would not win it." The congressman then went further, insisting that he had learned from the North Vietnamese that with only one more week of bombing, the Viet Cong would have unconditionally thrown in the towel. (One wonders why Henry Kissinger hadn’t ever thought of more bombing as a solution in Vietnam. And surely the South probably would have prevailed in the Civil War by May of 1865 if Robert E. Lee hadn’t blundered into surrendering at the Appomattox Court House.) To round out his presentation, Gohmert also suggested that the United States should be encouraging ethnic separatism in Pakistan, since that always seems to turn out well.
CPAC also continued the Republican obsession with the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, and the conference dedicated a full session to further exploring the hidden facts of what it proclaims to be a monumental scandal. Congresswoman Michelle Bachman accused President Obama of going AWOL during the assault, as Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire vowed to "get to the bottom of this." To an outside observer, the fixation on Benghazi is looking more and more like the John Birch Society’s old conviction that plans to put fluoride in the drinking water were a communist mind control plot.
One of the stars of CPAC was newly elected Sen. Ted Cruz, another Texan, who proudly proclaimed, "If standing for liberty and standing for the Constitution makes you a wacko bird, then count me a proud wacko bird," Before attacking the administration for insufficiently loving Israel and giving foreign aid to people who "hate us," Cruz also called for abolishing the Department of Education and auditing the Federal Reserve.
But for all the emphasis on traditional conservative targets like foreign aid and Benghazi, all wrapped in snide insinuation that President Obama is a closet Islamic extremist, it was equally notable what wasn’t discussed. Issues like free trade, an effective NATO alliance, and even missile-defense plans, long a conservative hobby horse received nary a mention. There was no real effort to come to terms with the hard lessons learned from the Iraq and Afghanistan fiascos championed by President George W. Bush. There was no real embrace even of major Bush successes, such as his efforts to combat HIV/AIDS by creating PEPFAR or to make foreign aid more focused by creating the Millennium Challenge Corporation.
As much sport as we might find in poking fun at the fever swamp that is CPAC, with Sarah Palin slurping Big Gulps and Ann Coulter making fat jokes about Chris Christie, it is a real problem that one of America’s two major parties has virtually imploded when it comes to laying out a positive foreign-policy vision that includes diplomacy, trade, defense, and development. As former Florida governor Jeb Bush argued at CPAC of his own party, "All too often we’re associated with being ‘anti’ everything…Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker, and the list goes on and on and on."
Jeb Bush may not have been popular for saying so at CPAC, but he is correct. U.S. foreign policy is not well served by either party simply defining itself by what it is not. We know the Tea Party hates the United Nations, foreign aid, Iran, Islamists, and Barack Hussein Obama. We have no idea what Tea Partiers thinks America should do in conjunction with its allies other than kill terrorists. They have come to define the world in terms of endless dystopian threats, while that most American of words, "opportunity," never seems to cross their lips.
The question now is whether the likes of Karl Rove, Jeb Bush, the RNC, and old-guard GOP think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, who so pumped up the Tea Party for tactical purposes to win the 2010 midterm elections, are now going to cauterize the wounds that are destroying the Republican brand. The patient will not heal itself. If the party wants to get it right on foreign policy, and once again make the case that responsible internationalism has always been a core party value, they will have to aggressively take on the lunatic fringe within the party. It says a great deal about the current state of affairs that Karl Rove, a political consultant dubbed Turdblossom by President Bush and portrayed by a canned ham on the Colbert Report, is getting an audition as a white knight.