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The Political Overconfidence of Republican Hard-liners

Colin Dueck writes in from a parallel universe:

Democrats are feeling a little cocky right now on foreign policy issues. But as the American public is presented with a clear choice this November between President Obama and a Republican nominee who favors a genuinely tough-minded national security policy, they may very well favor the Republican on that particular issue. The majority of American voters understand that the GOP is the more hardline of the two major parties in relation to international threats, and almost always favor Republicans when it comes to national defense.

As I said in a brief response last night, the public favored the Republican Party on national security and foreign policy when it had a reputation for competence. That reputation is now in tatters. It is in tatters in no small part because Republicans indulged their hard-liners and nationalists with an unnecessary foreign war and managed to wreck America’s relations with a number of important countries at the same time. It is telling that Dueck does not grapple with this, and never even mentions it in passing. Bush-era foreign policy destroyed the decades-old Republican advantage on these issues, and it remains to be seen whether they will be able to regain it. Most Americans do understand that Republicans are the more “hard-line” of the two major parties, and taken together with the party’s reputation for incompetence that is why the party has lost its advantage.

Dueck has authored a history of Republican foreign policy, which is appropriately enough called Hard Line, so it is understandable that he would be under the false impression that hard-line policies are also politically advantageous. These policies have been politically advantageous several times in the past, and it’s possible they might be popular again at some point, but they have been unpopular for several years and will likely remain so as long as the public remembers the costliness, futility, and needless destruction of the Iraq war in particular. The war in Afghanistan is simply deepening and strengthening the public’s distaste for large-scale, prolonged wars, so it will likely be two or three more elections before most voters will be interested in hearing the usual hard-line saber-rattling.

When the public perceives that Republican policies are related to national defense, instead of pointless crusading or fighting other nations’ wars, they have tended to support them. Many Republican hawks have spent the last decade treating fighting other nations’ wars as if it were the same thing as providing for the national defense, but very few people outside the party believe this anymore. The modern GOP inherited a reserve of public trust on national security and foreign policy that had been built up over decades, and they managed to squander it in the space of three or four years. By all rights, they shouldn’t be entrusted with these responsibilities for at least another decade until they have recognized their failures and worked to avoid making similar mistakes in the future. On these issues, they haven’t regained the public’s trust, because most of them still don’t know that they lost it and have to try to win it back.

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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