The larger argument of my “GOP’s Vietnam” article is that failed wars don’t just affect a party’s reputation in foreign policy but have spillover effects elsewhere. If I’m right about that, the GOP has today depleted its margin not only in foreign policy but across the board. And the next Republican president, like Carter, may not get much benefit of the doubt from the public.
Having no margin for error on foreign policy is one of the things that consistently hampers Republican criticisms of administration actions. The public doesn’t trust them or their judgment on these issues as they once did, and that means that hawkish Republican arguments face a much more skeptical, if not hostile, audience than they did at the start of the century. The trouble for a lot of Republican hawks is that they don’t realize that they now have no margin for error. Many of them continue to promote very similar policies without making much effort to justify them to a skeptical public, and they seem to think that they can rely on the party’s traditional advantage in this area to make up for the fact that their arguments aren’t very good. For the better part of forty years, Republicans were accustomed to attacking the other party as “weak” while positioning themselves as the more hawkish party, and in the last two presidential elections they have found that the old lines no longer work. Hawkish posturing may have once inspired confidence, because there was not much fear that a Republican president would start, much less lose, a major war. Now the hawkish posturing is taken as a virtual guarantee that the next Republican president probably will start more wars. Regardless, the risk that the next Republican president might plunge the U.S. into another war is not one worth taking.
Republican hawks likewise didn’t have much credibility to use the aftermath of the Libyan war against Obama, since almost all of them were supporters of intervention in Libya and had been arguing for an even larger, more aggressive American role there. If some of the hawks had had their way on Libya, there would have been U.S. soldiers coming under attack there on a regular basis. Seeking to out-hawk Obama doesn’t just make for substantively bad policy, but it demonstrates impressive political incompetence on a large scale.
Romney felt compelled to seize on Benghazi and Cairo to ward off attacks from hawks in his party, but I suspect he also thought this was a clever political move. Like others in his party, Romney claimed to see Obama as a new Carter, and a high-profile failure overseas might have seemed to fit into the story Romney wanted to tell. One problem Romney had in taking advantage of this was that he was personally untrustworthy and prone to shameless opportunism, so as soon as tried to make political hay out of the attack he met with a very negative response. But this wasn’t just a question of Romney’s flaws. It fit a pattern of Republican hawkish criticism that tried to use any episode, no matter how trivial or minor, to portray the incumbent as a bungler, but by September 2012 the hawks had cried wolf far too many times for most people paying attention to these issues to listen to what they said. Republicans have no margin for error on foreign policy, but Republican hawks keep making arguments that require a very large one.