Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Can a Realist Be a Republican?

Nuance and consensus are hallmarks of Chuck Hagel's school of thought—and antithetical to the Tea Party GOP.

Ross Douthat on Twitter finds Hagel’s embattled performance yesterday indicative of wider faults with realists:

To the extent that realists like Hagel and Colin Powell voted for or promoted many of the GOP’s foreign-policy mistakes I agree with Ross. They were and are part of the problem.

But the solution I sometimes hear from conservative thinkers who aren’t committed to any particular foreign policy is paradoxical. They advise working within the GOP and conservative movement: avoid upsetting anyone, and if you’re nice enough, eventually everyone will listen to you. This is exactly what has led realists—think of Powell selling the Iraq War at the UN, or Hagel’s own vote for the war—into policy failure and rhetorical inconsistency.

Realism’s virtue lies in the power of its critique. If that critique has to be muted in order to get a hearing sometime down the road, it in fact won’t be heard at all. What little sound anyone might pick up from a Powell or Dick Lugar would only be an echo of the strident notes trumpeted by the most aggressive players in the conservative movement and GOP.

Hagel’s performance before the Senate Armed Services Committee was so underwhelming because he played the game. He is, in fact, a very mainstream guy on foreign policy: by 2006 he was against the Iraq War, just as the country was, and voted against the Surge; but in 2003 he was for the war, again just as the country then was. He’s frustrated by the leverage the various Israel lobbies (Sheldon Adelson being somewhat different from AIPAC) wield over discussions of U.S. foreign policy, but in this he’s no different from Peter Beinart or J Street, who are not exactly radicals in the eyes of anyone but an extremist like Adelson.

Hagel wasn’t just tailoring his answers to his interrogators’ tastes: he genuinely, I think, believes that realists should not be too robust in their criticisms; they should stick with the policy and political consensus, even if their better judgment tells them the consensus is wrong—and even if, in less guarded moments, they have given voice to their better judgments in the past. It’s the quality of a diplomat, and an old-guard politician, to value agreement over (for lack of a better word) truth.

Republican Party realists have habitually followed this insider path; it’s practically bred into their WASP bones. And in an older Washington, and an older media environment—in a world where the manners of the conservative movement, for example, were those of William F. Buckley and James Burnham—this approach worked. Realists got their turn to speak, and if they were unheeded, they shut up and went along.

Washington has changed. The right and the Republican Party have changed even more. Gentility is no longer the idiom. We saw during the Hagel hearing how little a Ted Cruz cares for civility. And for a Tea Party insurgent like Mike Lee, his own understanding of truth will always trump consensus. Hierarchical deference, nuanced thought, and manners being more important than winning are out; Manichean worldviews and megaphones are in. (American politics has always has a bit of both words, but the balance in the GOP now tilts heavily toward populism.)

Realists cannot simply make timid criticisms, smile, and loyally follow the GOP to war today—they can’t do that and remain realists, and really they can’t even do that and remain in public life, as Dick Lugar has shown and Chuck Hagel may learn. Nobody in today’s Republican Party is willing to listen to softly spoken qualms and hedged critiques about life or death matters.

But clearly Republican realists cannot outbid the new breed of Tea Party neocons when it comes to demagoguery. The style is part of the substance: you simply can’t rile up a crowd or appeal to paranoid billionaires if you don’t paint an oversimplified picture of the world. The subtle thinking that is the realists’ signal virtue is impossible if one has to frame it in crude language, just as surely as good character is impossible if one thinks it can be expressed by bad behavior.

This is a very difficult lesson for many good people in Washington to accept—it’s difficult to accept because it means that the technique they use in their own heads to reconcile what they really believe with the stupid things their party does simply will not work. Only the belief that any set of words or any kind of action can really stand for a totally different type of thought or character can bridge the gulf between conscience and party. This isn’t Machiavellianism so much as a way to expiate guilt.

But if Republican realists can’t go along, and if they can’t frame realism in the emotional language the Fox-fed GOP base demands, what can they do? Confronted by Tea Party senators and billionaire-backed pundits who insist that one cannot be both a realist and a Republican, perhaps the only sensible course is not to be a Republican. This is already, evidently, the course many realists have adopted, and it exactly parallels the migration of neoconservatives out of the Democratic Party of George McGovern in the 1970s. Realists, like neoconservatives, are few in number, but each exodus has suggested that something fundamental was wrong with the party in question—something that before long had serious electoral consequences.

The only other course for Republican realists is to emphasize the power of their critique over the prospect of short-term political impact. In practice this would mean a.) being true to realism’s own style of civility and nuanced discourse, rather than trying to out-emote the Tea Party, but b.) being sufficiently willing to break with consensus that one no longer downplays important criticisms, as Hagel has, in hopes of getting a fair hearing from partisans determined not to listen. This won’t win you appointment as secretary of defense, but as the costs of U.S. foreign policy continue to mount, realists may find over time that they have a wider and wider audience—of Republicans as well as Democrats and independents. Let reality reassert itself; King Canute couldn’t turn back the tide, and neither can any Tea Party or fanatical billionaire. When the public, and thereafter either party, feels the pressing need for better policy, the realists will be there to provide it.

Daniel McCarthy is editor of The American Conservative.