The Democratic party is increasingly linked with the attitudes, tendencies, and policies of peace, whereas the Republican party is increasingly linked with the maintenance and projection of American military power. ~Matthew Continetti, The Weekly Standard
This is a pleasant fiction, at least where Democratic party leadership and elected representatives are concerned. This claim about being a “peace” party is most true of Democratic House members, who are necessarily a little more representative of grassroots sentiment, but even here it is not terribly convincing. Dennis Kucinich and Russ Feingold, bless their politically irrelevant hearts, continue to hold the only real antiwar positions of any remotely prominent Democrats on the Hill. Pelosi talks a good game as far as Iraq goes, but she was foursquare behind every Clinton intervention and has no principled qualms about power projection or intervention as such. She opposes the Iraq war (feebly), but that’s all. In practical terms, the two parties converge far more often than not on foreign policy. This is what drives progressives and traditional conservatives alike crazy. Were there actually a clear partisan division over America’s role in the world, there would be no question that all non-interventionists would flock to the major party that represented them. There is no such major party.
This supposed divergence only holds up at all when you compare supporters of the two parties. As the November 2005 Pew poll, which I discussed last year here, showed, support for interventionism tended to rise in direct proportion to a person’s wealth and education. (This tells me that people who have many of the advantages in life are shockingly bad judges of the national interest, and it would be worth investigating why this is the case.) Support for an interventionist role was even more directly correlated with a person’s party affiliation and self-described political leanings: Republicans and those who considered themselves conservative or very conservative were considerably more likely to reject the idea that America should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” In other words, most of the people calling themselves conservative on a fundamental question of the American role in the world rejected the conservative and traditional American view. As with so many other things, I suppose they are entitled to take whatever position they believe is best, but I do get awfully tired of their sullying the good name of conservative in the process.
However, as the poll showed, at least 22% of conservatives and 27% of Republicans did agree with the statement that America should mind its own business internationally (compared with 55% of Democrats). That is a clear minority of the GOP, but a sizeable one that a real non-interventionist party could possibly steal away. But the Democrats cannot pursue a dedicated non-interventionist line without sacrificing a huge portion of their own support. The Democratic base is almost evenly split down the middle. Mr. Continetti’s “great divide” goes right through the Democratic Party (and through the GOP to a much lesser extent), not between the two parties themselves.
Mr. Continetti rests much of this divide on attitudes towards the Iraq war, which is highly misleading. Many of the current opponents of the Iraq war on the left (or, more accurately, those who support withdrawal from Iraq on the left) are not particularly opposed to the projection of American power and some were not even opposed to the invasion. John Murtha is famously one of the most “hawkish” of Democrats, and it seems unlikely that Jim Webb is reflexively hostile to interventionism. Kucinich distinguishes himself as the only probable ’08 contender who actually supports withdrawal sooner rather than later. Conservative and other interventionist Democrats oppose a particularly badly run and pointless war that is damaging the armed forces and wrecking America’s reputation. In this they are increasingly joined by internationalist and realist Republicans who are nothing if not interested in maintaining American superpower status and protecting Washington’s bloated definition of what constitutes our national interests. The foreign policy establishment has started to turn on the war not because they are giving up on projecting power, but because they see it as a liability that prevents the government from being able to project power around the globe. The complaint from many Republicans now is not that there are too many commitments but that there are too few military resources to match them. Any desire to liquidate the Iraq war in these quarters is fuelled by a desire to maintain America’s ability to project power and to answer the “real” threats from Iran or some other bogey conjured to frighten us into still more war.
In some sense, non-interventionists might benefit from the Iraq war’s continuation as it grinds away at the public’s patience and wears out their tolerance for idiotic foriegn policy, but for good or ill non-interventionists are not nearly so cynical as some of their adversaries in the foreign policy debate. Unlike them, we are not indifferent to the costs and damage their wars do to this country, and so we would sooner see them ended even if their continuation might destroy support for interventionism for a generation. Unfortunately, there is scarcely any political leadership that represents our view. A sharp partisan divide over foreign policy would be a refreshing change, but it is one for which we will still have to wait a very long time.