Are Republicans ceding foreign policy to the Democrats?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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With the death of Moammar Gadhafi and the announcement of a full withdraw from Iraq by the end of the year, foreign policy is back in the national spotlight — at least, for today.

And while analysts are wondering whether or not President Obama might be helped politically by a string of foreign policy successes, even the New York Times concedes, “there is little doubt the election will be dominated by the economy and the weak job market.”

That’s probably an accurate analysis of 2012 — but what about the long-term implications?

It might be cold comfort to him, but if Obama’s foreign policy success continues — and that’s a big if — the long-term implications could dwarf any short-term bump.

George Will seems to agree. Appearing on “This Week,” Will argued that Obama’s foreign policy successes “won’t give him a bump” but that it “immunizes him on an issue that’s been a Democratic problem since … the party fractured on Vietnam in 1968 and elected — nominated McGovern in ’72.”

Here, I think, Will is hinting at a larger point. The current foreign policy narrative wasn’t always in place; in 1960, for example, John F. Kennedy ran to the right of Richard Nixon, citing a “missile gap.”

Could it be that, over time, Democrats might finally shake the weak-knee label, and rebrand themselves as the smart-but-hawkish party?

Since 1968, modern Republicans have been able to simply check off the foreign policy box. The issue skewed their way; if voters cared deeply about a strong national defense, they were likely Republican voters. Losing that inherent advantage would have real long-term consequences.

What is more, this comes at an interesting time. Just as Democrats appear to be shaking their weak image, Republicans are flirting with a more isolationist streak. Might Republicans simply cede the issue back to Democrats (after enjoying 40, or so, years of hegemony)?

As the New York Times, Sam Tanenhaus observes,

with the exception of impassioned support for Israel, conservatives have been embracing a retreat from the greater world that recalls the isolationism of a bygone age in which belief in American “exceptionalism” combined with distrust of other countries and “entangling alliances,” even with other democracies.

Just a couple of years ago, Tanenhaus was declaring “The Death of Conservatism,” so it’s probably fair to say his analysis isn’t always correct. And while he is clearly picking up on some fascinating short-term trends within the tea party and the current GOP primary field, it is entirely possible this will simply evaporate.

Suppose, for example, that Sen. Marco Rubio goes on to become the face of the modern Republican Party. He strongly believes that America is a beacon of hope and should be a force for good in the world. One would presume a Rubio Republican party wouldn’t have to worry about isolationist tendencies.

Regardless, my guess is that conservatives aren’t headed back to a Pre-World War II isolationist foreign policy. Most likely, what we are now experiencing is merely an example of, well, politics.

There is a cynical way of explaining this phenomenon, which is to say that some Republicans simply want to deprive a Democratic president from achieving any sort of major public relations victory. A slightly more optimistic theory holds that Republicans oppose Obama’s interventions — not because they philosophically oppose intervention — but because they don’t trust Obama as commander-in-chief.

Either way, it is entirely possible — I would argue probable — that once Obama is dispatched with, most mainstream conservatives will return to a relatively internationalist — some would say hawkish — foreign policy stance.

Note: Politico’s Jim VandeHei and I were recently on “Jansing & Co.” discussing whether or not Obama will get credit. Watch here:
Matt K. Lewis