As with proposals to reform popular entitlement programs, GOP voters appear to have a low pain threshold. “Take it out of the other guy’s hide” thus has its foreign-policy equivalent: “Dovish, when all is quiet.”
I talked about these results a little bit last week. It still strikes me as more important that demand for a more activist foreign policy is still quite weak in the country as a whole, and the desire to “do more” doesn’t have the support of a majority of Republicans. Despite months of alarmist coverage and overreactions from Republican politicians to foreign events, more than half of the party doesn’t buy into the idea that the U.S. ought to be doing more around the world. Republican elites are using all the usual lines to rally support for aggressive policies, but they aren’t having the same success that they did a decade ago.
It’s certainly true that Republican opinion has shifted significantly over the last year (the “too little” response rose by 28 points since last November). That suggests that many of these respondents have very changeable views on the subject, but that also implies that those views could change back again as conditions change. 37% of Republicans still think the U.S. is doing too much, so there is a significant bloc among Republicans that hasn’t been swayed by the current wave of panic and demagoguery. The likely 2016 Republican field will have quite a few hawkish competitors, and these candidates will probably split the more hawkish voters four or five ways. As they cannibalize one another’s support, they will also be trying to take the most hard-line positions to show how “tough” they would be as president. In the process, they’ll also be driving away somewhat hawkish voters that still aren’t interested in having the U.S. policing multiple foreign conflicts. The more specific that these candidates have to be about what they intend to do in office, the harder it will be for them to sell an activist foreign policy because it will be harder to hide what it will cost the U.S., which is ultimately what has driven so many Republicans in the direction of preferring restraint.
There also aren’t that many non-Republicans that believe the U.S. is doing “too little,” which means that a Republican nominee running on a platform of increased foreign policy activism will be on the wrong side of a large majority of the larger electorate. There may be a surge in support for having the U.S. do more in the world, but there still aren’t that many supporters for greater activism. Candidates that make the mistake of believing that aggressive foreign policy isn’t a political liability are likely to be in for a rude awakening.