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Looking On the Bright Side (Sort Of)

Our analysis reached three conclusions:

There is no “isolationist” wing of the GOP. Of the Republicans’ 47 senators and 242 representatives, only 5 percent (15 members) expressed support for cutting defense spending. Adding those in the “ambiguously for” category makes it 13 percent. Forty-one percent are against cutting defense spending; with those ambiguously against, it’s 60 percent.

Only 10 Republicans, or 4 percent, are against the war in Afghanistan, and none are senators. Including the skeptical members, 10 percent are somewhat antiwar. Eighty percent support the war.

The tea party is not mellowing Republican militarism. If it were, freshman Republicans, who mostly proclaim allegiance to the movement, should be more dovish than the rest. That’s not the case. Five of the 101 Republican freshmen and 10 of the 184 who aren’t newcomers support cutting defense spending. That’s about 5 percent of each group.

No new Republican opposes the war in Afghanistan outright. Including skeptics, 9 percent of freshmen and 11 percent of the rest are against the war.

Fewer new Republicans have defined positions on these issues. Veteran Republicans are more likely to be in the clearly “against cuts” and “for the war” categories; freshmen are more likely to be ambiguous or have no position. This ambiguity is a silver lining for advocates of military restraint: Many tea-party Republicans were elected without saying much about foreign policy and may yet emerge as non-interventionists. ~Benjamin Friedman [1]

Via Conor [2]

Instead of repeating earlier arguments that support Friedman’s findings, I will try to find something more encouraging in all of this than Friedman’s rather thin silver living*. First of all, it could be that Friedman is looking at the wrong things. I agree that positions on military spending and Afghanistan are usually “a good proxy for general foreign-policy views,” but this is potentially misleading.


Measuring someone’s non-interventionist leanings based on support for or opposition to the war in Afghanistan is potentially quite confusing. Even among some of the reliable non-interventionists in the House, opposing the war in Afghanistan was not always an obvious or necessary position to take. During the Bush years, there was essentially no reliable Republican opposition to the war in Afghanistan, as opposed to a small core of Iraq war opponents in the House. Rep. Walter Jones is a good example of a House Republican moving from a hawkish supporter of both Afghanistan and Iraq to an opponent of both [3]. Indeed, making opposition to the war in Afghanistan into a meaningful indicator of a conservative’s overall foreign policy views is a fairly recent and somewhat arbitrary move. Assuming that support for the war in Afghanistan is inconsistent with generally non-interventionist views, it is still possible that statements of support for the war in Afghanistan do not tell us nearly as much about someone’s foreign policy inclinations as one might initially think.

It is possible that some “skeptics” and opponents of the war in Afghanistan are not actually in favor of reduced military spending or a smaller warfare state, but have come to object to the war because it is useful to position themselves against a signature part of administration foreign policy, because they dislike “nation-building” but have no problem with starting wars, and because they believe that the rules of engagement are too restricting and “politically correct.” It may be that generally more hawkish members have been quicker to join the small number of consistent non-interventionists in questioning the war in Afghanistan for entirely different reasons, and it is possible that potentially more dovish members nonetheless support the war in Afghanistan. It is also possible that members, especially new members who did not discuss these issues much during the campaign, have staked out positions in favor of high military spending to guard against the inevitable charge that they are “weak” on defense in the event that they are critical of U.S. policies and wars overseas.

According to Friedman, “[f]orty-one percent are against cutting defense spending; with those ambiguously against, it’s 60 percent.” Those numbers are lower than I would have expected. That still leaves a significant bloc of Republicans in Congress that might be willing to consider cutting military spending. If anything, these findings show that definite support for high levels of military spending is not overwhelming, which creates the possibility that a substantial number of Republicans will be willing to question the need for current spending levels and to oppose spending increases in the future. It may be that there is a significant room for improvement as fiscal hawks and non-interventionists combine at least to hold the line on military spending and possibly start questioning an expansive U.S. role in the world.

*I call it a thin silver lining because it is highly unlikely that freshmen without well-defined views on these subjects are going to opt for the position shared by 5-10% of their colleagues rather than the one held by 80-90%. Unless they represent districts where military spending is unimportant and antiwar sentiment is strong, or unless they are already convinced by non-interventionist and realist arguments, their lack of well-defined views will make them easily influenced by members who hold the prevailing view. In any case, this argument from members’ silence is not much to go on.

Update: Friedman follows up [4] on his op-ed at The National Interest’s blog.

2 Comments (Open | Close)

2 Comments To "Looking On the Bright Side (Sort Of)"

#1 Comment By bfriedman On January 25, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

Thanks for citing (and actually reading) my stuff. As you can see in the blog post you cited in your update, I agree with you that the silver lining is thin, and the political forces that made Republicans hawks in the past are likely to make most “Tea Party” freshmen into hawks today. I hope I’m wrong though.

I also agree that Afghanistan is not a perfect proxy for general foreign policy views. But what is? To me, being for that war in current form is pretty strong evidence that you are not in the realist/ anti-intervention camp. I can’t think of anyone I know that shares those views in general but thinks we ought to stick around Afghanistan trying conjure up a truly national government. In this exercise, by the way, members that expressed support for a substantial drawdown and a smaller counterrorism first strategy would count as against the war. Those that just complained about the conduct of the war (ie the rules of engagement are bad, we shouldn’t be nation-building) counted as for it.

#2 Comment By RedPhillips On January 26, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

Daniel, I think Justin and I are now officially in your head. 🙂

I have never thought or suggested that the situation with national Republican elected officials is anything but bad so this analysis does not surprise me. We only have one prominent elected spokesman (Ron Paul) and a few not so prominent spokesmen (the other Paul, Walter Jones, John Duncan).

This is why the list of potential 2012 contenders is so poor. Paul is really the only elected official who could run on our platform, and we have almost no “bench.” (If Paul doesn’t run [and I think he will] then I believe any potential candidate to carry on the Paul coalition will likely have to come from a non-traditional/non-elected background.)

But the silver lining in all this is that elected officials are a lagging indicator. Consider the issue of immigration. A lot of “conservative” elected officials were babbling about “comprehensive reform,” then there was an uprising among the base and now those folks won’t touch “comprehensive reform” with a ten foot pool, and some even lost their seats over it.

The reason to be encouraged is what is happening among the base. We may not be a numerically large faction yet, but we are a vocal, well informed faction that is acutely aware of the dichotomy on the intervention vs. non-intervention issue. Because the dichotomy is so stark, a lot of people tend to identify themselves around this issue. It is what makes them distinct. It is a large part of how they identify themselves as conservatives.

The fact that a lot of the new “Tea Party” Republicans were relatively silent about foreign policy likely has something to do with the fact that they know it is a land mind with the divided base (at least the savvy ones do). There was a lot of movement toward opposition to nation building and a need for clear objectives. While overt Paul style non-interventionism is probably still a big loser with the base, there was a lot of movement toward Jacksonianism and away from neoconish grand plans. This is positive movement.

Also the fact that foreign policy wasn’t much of an issue in the election reflects the fact that less and less people consider it a top issue. There remains a core of alarmists who still want to be assured that their candidate recognizes we are in an “existential struggle” blah, blah, blah… but that core is shrinking and moving on to different things. Just consider the different rhetorical environment from 2004 to 2010? There is a shrinking audience who will respond to fearmongering. The fact that foreing policy was off the table is in and of itself a positive developement.