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McCain and Republican Foreign Policy

Jonathan Chait is mostly right about John McCain and wrong about the Republican Party:

The basic way to understand McCain is that neoconservative foreign policy is his ideological core. Everything else about his ideology can shift radically depending on his ambitions, circumstances, and whom he’s most angry with at any given moment. He favored immigration reform under George W. Bush, abandoned it to refashion himself as a “build the dang fence” border hawk, and, in the wake of last November, embraced it again. He fashioned himself as a modern Teddy Roosevelt environmentalist crusader during his anti-Bush phase, sponsored a cap and trade bill, but decided to run as a “drill here, drill now” conservative in 2008, abandoning his own cap and trade plan once Obama tried to pass it.

But the foreign policy hawkishness has remained constant. And the foreign policy hawks have found themselves the biggest losers in the GOP’s postelection ideological restructuring [bold mine-DL].

If you have no idea what this last sentence refers to, you’re not alone. Foreign policy hawks have escaped mostly unscathed from Republican post-2012 recriminations, just as they escaped post-2006 and post-2008 attempts to identify where the party went wrong. Virtually every other conservative faction has fared worse. Immigration restrictionists have been told in no uncertain terms that they are dooming the party’s political fortunes, social conservatives are serving as the traditional post-election scapegoat for Republican losses, and even anti-tax conservatives have suffered some setbacks in the months since the election. By contrast, foreign policy hawks seem not to have lost much ground at all.

Chait is right to say that hawkish foreign policy has been the one constant in McCain’s career for most of the last twenty years. It seems to be one of the main things that motivates him. Other than immigration and campaign finance reform, I can’t of any issues that he has identified with more closely than his constant agitation for military interventions and largely uncritical defense of an ever-increasing Pentagon budget. As Chait notes, McCain has on occasion been willing to pander a little to conservative concerns on immigration when it suits his intra-party political needs, but McCain has not done that on foreign policy and national security issues ever since he adopted neoconservative foreign policy ideas starting in the mid-’90s.

On foreign policy issues, McCain’s views still prevail among most elected Republicans, and they are regularly echoed by conservative pundits and analysts. The discussion among most Republicans and movement conservatives on the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq was between those that thought the war was a tremendous success and those that thought it was a basically sound policy that had a few setbacks. Every Republican member of the Foreign Relations Committee except Rand Paul approved the Menendez-Corker bill, which means that they all voted with McCain. Compared to this, sequestration is a sideshow.

The best way to understand McCain’s fits of pique directed against members of his own party on anything other than foreign policy is to consider what gets him the most and the most positive media coverage.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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