It’s been instructive to watch the maneuvering of the Republican field of candidates, and of the Republican party in general, in the pre-primary phase of the 2016 election.
Jeb Bush enters the race with the formidable advantages and disadvantages of his last name. But rather than move to distance himself from his brother’s foreign policy disasters, he’s shown every indication of believing that, whatever the failures of execution, the strategic and moral framework within which they unfolded was correct, and that the big problem with President Obama foreign policy has been that it is insufficiently muscular in its activism.
Mitt Romney enters the race with the formidable advantages and disadvantages of his 2012 run. A significant part of his motivation appears to be the belief that, on foreign policy specifically, he predicted all the problems that have bedeviled America and the world in Obama’s second term, and that his own omnidirectional belligerence would have worked out much better than the President’s approach.
All of the other Republican candidates need to establish that they can play at the level of these two in terms of national credibility. Some – like Marco Rubio or Rick Santorum – are true-believing hawks. Others – like Scott Walker, who I felt before Iowa had the best chance to “break out” of the pack as an establishment-acceptable alternative to the better-known leaders – who are in a position either to stake out distinctive territory in foreign policy or to largely avoid the subject, have chosen instead to stake out stridently hawkish positions across the board, without much thought or concern.
Only Rand Paul still seems to be looking for distinctive foreign policy ground, but increasingly he seems to be trying to have things both ways – to push the envelope in a less-hawkish direction by reassuring his audience that he has the same Jacksonian instincts they do.
What I take from all of the above is the conclusion that, whatever the polls may say, the people with power in the Republican party believe that there is far more electoral risk in deviating from the hawkish line than from embracing it. So I feel confident in saying that the next Presidential election looks overwhelmingly likely to feature a hawkish Democrat (Hillary Clinton) facing off against a hawkish Republican.
When faced with this kind of situation, it is tempting to fantasize about alternatives. In the context of the Democratic party contest, I’ve done some of that fantasizing myself. So: what if a serious candidate ran on a third party peace platform? What would be the consequence?
Taking the fantasy seriously for a moment, I immediately have to ask myself: who is the candidate? How is he or she perceived in more general ideological terms? Dennis Kucinich and Pat Buchanan could both plausibly describe themselves as peace candidates. But I very much doubt there are many voters who would seriously vote for one who would also seriously vote for the other.
Successful third party candidacies – meaning, ones that succeeded in shaping subsequent politics – have to scramble the allegiances of established blocs of voters, so that both parties sit up and take notice, and ask themselves: how can we win those who may be suddenly up for grabs? Ross Perot did that in 1992; he not only facilitated Bill Clinton’s victory, but moved the national conversation about the budget decisively in his direction. George Wallace did it in 1968; he not only facilitated Richard Nixon’s victory, but moved the national conversation about crime decisively in his direction. Is there any plausible candidate who would have a similar impact in 2016? Who could force the two major parties to reckon with an up-for-grabs bloc of voters not being represented by the major party candidates in contention?
Well, another way to put that is: can you imagine a significant number of Democratic-leaning voters, liberals or moderates, voting for a peace candidate who felt culturally Republican and/or who failed to pass a set of liberal litmus tests (say he’s against the ACA, or against abortion or gay marriage, or goes around waving the tenth amendment at rallies)? Can you imagine a significant number of Republican-leaning voters, conservatives or moderates, voting for a peace candidate who felt like a cultural Democrat and/or who failed to pass a set of conservative litmus tests (say she’s robustly in favor of higher income taxes, or open borders, or says one of our most important challenges today is ending rape culture)? Or, alternatively, is there some cultural and political type that crosses those boundaries in interesting ways?
The more I think about it, the more I think the answer to this question is “no.” That is to say: when you poll Americans about whether they want to see a more or less active foreign policy, you can get numbers that suggest there’s an opening for someone to run on such a platform – and that such a constituency exists in both parties. But this is an electoral illusion.
The peace constituency in the Democratic party is a left-edge constituency that is not going to consider voting against Hillary Clinton or any other popular Democrat in favor of someone more centrist-seeming – or even culturally Republican – who happens to be in favor of a significantly more restrained foreign policy. Foreign policy is just one of a host of issues where they are to the left of their party’s center; it’s not a trump card.
Meanwhile, I increasingly suspect that there is no actual peace constituency in the Republican party, but rather a below-the-surface unease about the kinds of people who are making decisions about war and peace for our country. And part of the price of admission to proving you are the right kind of person to trust with our national security is believing in American exceptionalism and standing with our allies and all of that – that is to say: speaking the language of the hawks. Yes, there are fringe groups of libertarians and paleoconservatives and the like who are genuinely opposed to the Washington consensus and its even more hawkish movement conservative variants, but (a) they are tiny; and (b) many of them, like left-wing Democrats, would not vote for someone whose views on other issues they strongly opposed even if they agreed on foreign policy.
So if we do see a third party alternative running on a peace platform, I would expect that candidate to receive very few votes. And I would expect that result to be touted as proof that the American people favor the hawkish consensus.
All of which also makes it harder for a peace candidate to get any traction within one of the two major parties – since the candidates know that such positioning doesn’t help them win votes from the center, and there’s no real ability to reach around and grab from the opposing party’s fringe.
Sorry for the depressing analysis. On the bright side, we only got a few inches of snow here in Brooklyn, so the apocalypse is not upon us quite yet.