I was as skeptical as anyone when freshman Rep. Jason Chaffetz first started voicing discontent over the Afghan War. A little rhetorical bludgeoning of a Democratic president’s military policy was one thing, but would Chaffetz dare vote against continued funding for the mission? Earlier this month we got the answer — Chaffetz sided with Ron Paul, Walter Jones, and a handful of other Republicans in voting to defund the war. As the Washington Post tells it:
On the eve of the vote, Chaffetz called families of the three men from his district who have died in Afghanistan since he was elected and told them he was considering opposing the funding.
“This was one of the toughest votes I’ve had in Congress,” Chaffetz said. “So I asked their opinion. And to a T, they all agreed with me.”
So Chaffetz joined a tiny bloc in Congress: Republicans opposed to the Afghan war. Chaffetz, 43, voted for a measure that would bar the administration from funding anything other than withdrawals and another that would require Obama to present a plan by April for the “safe, orderly and expeditious redeployment of U.S. troops.” Only nine House Republicans backed either measure.
The story also quotes California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, another of the Republican votes against continuing the conflict, as saying, “I can state emphatically that if we continue our present strategy in Afghanistan, we will not succeed, and America will eventually be weakened by loss of lives and the expenditures of hundreds of billions of dollars. What works in Afghanistan is what has worked in Afghanistan: Let the Afghans pay the price. Let them do their fighting.”
Not bad. But would Chaffetz or Rohrabacher be saying such things if a Republican were in the White House? Possibly so: many GOP lawmakers who should have known better went along with Bush’s wars in the last decade not merely out of party loyalty but because the ideological environment of post-9/11 America was so warped. It was an unusual time, with the likes of Andrew Sullivan plumping for the war on terror as enthusiastically as any administration flack. Bush himself was as popular with supposedly independent thinkers as his wars were. It’s not hard to see why Republican officeholders might have thought Bush was a leader entitled to deference, even beyond reasons of partisan solidarity.
The president’s aura of infallibility was gone by 2006, and a distant memory by 2008, when Chaffetz won his House seat by challenging an incumbent Republican, Chris Cannon, who had the full backing of Bush and the GOP establishment. Chaffetz then was willing to defy his party’s leaders on immigration, the issue that stirred him to oppose Cannon. It’s significant that he now defies them over foreign policy.
In decades past, foreign policy was regularly one of the battlegrounds upon which the more conservative kind of Republican fought the party elite — think of the dispute over the Panama Canal treaties, for example. This tension between the GOP Right and the party leadership has not followed any predictable course, however: in the ’80s, the Right wanted Reagan to be more aggressive; in the ’90s, the Right was somewhat anti-interventionist but also Sinophobic. The George W. Bush years were exceptional, as the Right totally subordinated itself to the president (think of the contrast with his father’s administration). With Chaffetz voting against the Afghan War and Ann Coulter breaking with Bill Kristol, the Right’s foreign policy for the next decade is far from settled.
One should not get too hopeful, of course. The Republican Party has learned over time how to co-opt and neuter its more cantankerous elements. Even before 9/11, the ease with which Bush won acceptance from the right-wing of his party was remarkable. This was owing partly to the fact that the established institutions of the conservative movement — National Review, for example — had become steadily more Republican and less right-wing over the 1990s. Republicans who would have been regarded by the movement as moderates or liberals in the past now receive passing grades. Mitt Romney is a perfect example: his record is overwhelmingly liberal, but movement cons can’t tell the difference between him and Barry Goldwater.
This diminishes the prospects for any Republican backbench resistance against future Republican presidents. So too does the myth of Democratic radicalism: if you or your constituents really believe that Barack Obama is an America-hating McGovernite caricature, isn’t it worth voting for another Nixon/Bush/Romney/fill-in-the-blank for the sake of saving the country from certain doom? Even right-leaning Republicans like Chaffetz may give a pass to “moderate” leaders if they believe — or have to pretend to believe — that the alternative is unadulterated leftism. (This is as cockeyed a notion as the idea that the GOP is a party of unadulterated conservatism. Obama’s most dangerous policies are the ones he has in common with the GOP leadership: a commitment to global meliorism, easy credit and endless deficit spending, and consolidation of power in the federal government and, within the federal government, in the executive branch.)
None of this should cause the antiwar Right to overlook the opportunity we are presented with. The “to hell with them hawks” are up for grabs, and they already despise the neoconservative and establishment GOP line on issues such as immigration and spending — though neocons have been moving quickly to conceal their enthusiasm for big government and open borders. The grassroots are also just sick of listening to the likes of Bill Kristol tell them what views are acceptable. Some conservatives, especially the old timers, have even learned a few lessons from the disastrous foreign policy of the Bush years. All of these conditions create an environment more favorable to the antiwar Right than we have seen in at least a decade. Now at least there’s some dissension, however much it may be driven by circumstances.