George Will says the nation is in the mood for a McGovern moment, and that this explains why in the last debate Mitt Romney kept veering back to domestic policy (“I love teachers!”) and Obama resorted to leftover rhetoric from the Huntsman campaign (“Nation building at home”).
I think George Will is correct about the current mood of the country, but such moods quickly change. There was an exhalation after the first Gulf War. America would enjoy a post-Cold War peace dividend, it was said. And though Bill Clinton was very wary of using ground troops, he still led America (and NATO) into humanitarian interventions in that decade.
Similarly George W. Bush correctly read the mood of the country in 1999 and 2000 when he said that he would advocate a more “humble” foreign policy. And then after 9/11, he led the nation into a Global War on Terror.
Obama rode another anti-interventionist mood past Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary, then “led from behind” to send American ordinance tumbling into Libya.
So Will may be right that a plurality of Americans want to “come home,” but that mood is relatively easy to overcome by presidents. Walter Russell Mead’s division of American foreign policy traditions is a useful if imperfect shorthand. We are Jeffersonians, Hamiltonians, Wilsonians, and Jacksonians, and these tendencies are scattered across our two parties in ways that are easily reconfigured by partisan passions.
The same GOP that could be trending toward anti-interventionism in the late ’90s turned instantly to a wrathful Jacksonianism, and a soaring Wilsonianism. The antiwar movement in the Democratic party from 2006 to election day 2008 evaporated almost instantly.
Because the political class of America is so unusually convinced of its own omnicompetence in managing human affairs across the planet, actually achieving a “Come Home America” foreign policy is going to require unusual political creativity from some future candidate or president. Reagan showed some of this by sounding like Ronald “Ray-gun” while simultaneously proposing the abolition of nuclear arsenals.
A misguided Reagan nostalgia has given us mediocrities like Fred Thompson and a Republican party that always seems past its sell-by date. But in these closing days of election 2012, I’m starting to feel something of it myself.
At the same time, I recognize that if someone like him came along, I’d probably spit that he was a warmonger and move on.