The taming of the Republican Party

You have to give George W. Bush and Dick Cheney credit. While the two wars they unleashed on the Middle East have not brought stability to either Iraq or Afghanistan, they have managed to pacify one group of extremists. Last night’s Republican Party presidential debate was notable for the fact that a decade after 9/11, ...

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

You have to give George W. Bush and Dick Cheney credit. While the two wars they unleashed on the Middle East have not brought stability to either Iraq or Afghanistan, they have managed to pacify one group of extremists. Last night's Republican Party presidential debate was notable for the fact that a decade after 9/11, the would be successors to the Bush-Cheney legacy seemed to have very little appetite for the kind of military adventurism for which their party had become known during the first years of this century. 

In fact, the rest of the world should sit up and take notice that on the eve of an anniversary that still resonates deeply with all Americans and with U.S. troops still on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the "war on terror" was one recent Republican favorite that effectively did not show up at the Reagan Library for last night's gabfest. Neither did "with us or against us" unilateralism or even much militaristic jingoism -- except when the conversation turned to the needs for "boots on the ground" to keep Mexicans out of the United States. 

Jon Huntsman, who effectively committed political suicide by being thoughtful, intelligent, adult, and constructive throughout the debate, made a reference to America's "shattered innocence" in the wake of 9/11 (quite a concept after two centuries that included slavery, the genocidal slaughter of native Americans, a civil war that was the bloodiest the world had ever seen until that moment, two world wars, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Japanese internment camps, the Ku Klux Klan, the Oklahoma City bombings, and countless other events of similar character). He also rather boldly spoke common sense when he said it was time the U.S. was out of Afghanistan. And there were other murmurs on similar subjects from sideshow characters like Ron Paul and Rick Santorum who collectively have less chance of ending up the Republican nominee than did the event's moderators.

You have to give George W. Bush and Dick Cheney credit. While the two wars they unleashed on the Middle East have not brought stability to either Iraq or Afghanistan, they have managed to pacify one group of extremists. Last night’s Republican Party presidential debate was notable for the fact that a decade after 9/11, the would be successors to the Bush-Cheney legacy seemed to have very little appetite for the kind of military adventurism for which their party had become known during the first years of this century. 

In fact, the rest of the world should sit up and take notice that on the eve of an anniversary that still resonates deeply with all Americans and with U.S. troops still on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the "war on terror" was one recent Republican favorite that effectively did not show up at the Reagan Library for last night’s gabfest. Neither did "with us or against us" unilateralism or even much militaristic jingoism — except when the conversation turned to the needs for "boots on the ground" to keep Mexicans out of the United States. 

Jon Huntsman, who effectively committed political suicide by being thoughtful, intelligent, adult, and constructive throughout the debate, made a reference to America’s "shattered innocence" in the wake of 9/11 (quite a concept after two centuries that included slavery, the genocidal slaughter of native Americans, a civil war that was the bloodiest the world had ever seen until that moment, two world wars, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Japanese internment camps, the Ku Klux Klan, the Oklahoma City bombings, and countless other events of similar character). He also rather boldly spoke common sense when he said it was time the U.S. was out of Afghanistan. And there were other murmurs on similar subjects from sideshow characters like Ron Paul and Rick Santorum who collectively have less chance of ending up the Republican nominee than did the event’s moderators.

Instead, the substance of this debate was about America’s economic crisis. Admittedly, it can and should be argued that this is an issue with great international resonance and one that can be linked, at least in part, to the out-of-control spending associated with Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war on terror. Periodically, an international issue would arise — such as attacks on China for unfair trade practices (and Huntsman’s coolly rational if politically miscalculated observation that perhaps this was not the best time for a trade war with the world’s second largest economy and our principle creditor) or the immigration issue. And jingoism crept in, of course, but it was almost exclusively directed toward the greatness that is the inalienable right that lies embedded deep within every American wallet. 

No, whether or not you may believe 9/11 made any material contribution at all to America’s loss of innocence, this was without saying so a debate about the consequences of the decade of warfare and economic struggle since, about a different, enduring type of loss, the loss of our international stature and what, if anything could be done about it.

Naturally, politically debates being what they are, very few concrete ideas or solutions were offered. Mostly there were slogans and jibes and digs and counter-claims and lies and distortions. Being a Republican debate there were also assorted assaults on science, math, history, and syntax. And in the end, the big takeaways had to do with people rather than with substance.

Mitt Romney won by being less crazy than everyone but Huntsman while still sufficiently crazier than Huntsman to appeal to the base (yes, Mitt, a fence…that’s the ticket…). He didn’t call Social Security a "ponzi scheme" which set him apart from Rick Perry (who I still believe is an extra who wandered off the set of  Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy where he was playing a bombast-fueled talking head for some down market network affiliate).  And the two of them managed to set themselves apart from the rest of the field (with the able assistance of the hosts who seemed unconcerned with the idea of spreading the questions around fairly).

So at the conclusion of last night’s festivities just a couple of things were made clearer. One is that there are, appearances aside, barring some unforeseeable and shocking turn of events, just three people who might be the president of the United States in 2013: Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and Rick Perry. Another is — given Perry’s penchant for over-the-top statements, his seeming equivalent eagerness to execute criminals and climate science, his weathervane-like track record that included past support for Al Gore, the degree to which he is loathed by many in the Republican establishment, the fact that he is a career politician in a year when that is not what sells, and the professionalism of his opponents — that actually there are only two people who might be the next president of the United States, Romney and Obama. And finally there is the fact that the United States is turning inward in ways that seemed unimaginable only a few years ago.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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