The 2012 election was not decided because of foreign policy issues, but foreign policy hawkishness and the legacy of the Bush administration’s multiple failures were real liabilities for the Romney campaign and the party as a whole. These will continue to be liabilities for future Republican tickets unless party leaders recognize this and make the necessary changes. That will involve repudiating a lot of the foreign policy of the Bush era, and adopting in its place a foreign policy defined by restraint and prudence.
It is possible that the damage among younger voters has already been done such that these cohorts are lost to the GOP for many elections to come, but there is virtually no chance of winning them and future cohorts of voters if the party’s foreign policy remains what it is. Failing to reform Republican foreign policy will have effects beyond the relatively small portion of the electorate that votes on these issues, because the perception of incompetence and recklessness on these issues will sabotage the party’s efforts to repair its overall reputation.
The Republican weakness on foreign policy isn’t simply that Republican candidates favor many unpopular policies, but that most Americans don’t trust that Republicans won’t agitate for new, unnecessary wars in the future. Most Americans would presumably still endorse a message of “peace through strength,” but they have to be able to believe that Republican leaders are interested in preserving the peace rather than finding excuses for destroying it. Where Republicans were once considered sober, responsible stewards, most of their foremost spokesmen on foreign policy are now correctly regarded as dangerous and intoxicated with ideological fantasies.
It isn’t just that most of their preferred policies are substantively bad, as important as that is, but that most Americans reasonably expect the worst from them when they are in power. It will take some significant effort to get things to a point where a majority at least gives Republicans the benefit of the doubt on these issues. So far, the party’s leaders haven’t been making any effort to reform their foreign policy, and the Republican figures that have the most to say on foreign policy are daily moving the party in the wrong direction. There is still a window for Republican foreign policy reform, but it will close quickly if no leading Republicans take advantage of it.