The Sarah Palin Primary

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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In 2010, Sarah Palin endorsed Rand Paul for U.S. Senate in Kentucky. Most other reliable Republican hawks — Dick Cheney, Rudy Giuliani, Rick Santorum — endorsed his primary opponent.

Three years later, when Chris Christie criticized Paul’s stand on warrantless surveillance, Palin endorsed him again. “I’m on Team Rand,” she said. “Rand Paul understands, he gets the whole notion of ‘Don’t tread on me, government,’ whereas Chris Christie is for big government and, you know, trying to go along to get along in so many respects.”

In a North Carolina congressional primary, however, Sarah Palin is on the side of the hawks. Palin endorsed Taylor Griffin, a former George W. Bush aide running against Walter Jones, a 10-term incumbent who has emerged as one of the strongest anti-war Republicans in Congress.

“In Washington, we need you to stay true to your beliefs of smaller government, protecting life and furthering conservative principles,” Palin wrote to Griffin in a statement that doesn’t mention foreign policy or civil liberties. Neither does she ever mention Jones.

Palin’s endorsement against Jones comes on the heels of an NRA speech in which she said, “[W]aterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”

The former Alaska governor’s sacrilegious defense of torture has already been dissected endlessly. The American Conservative‘s Rod Dreher complained that Palin “makes Archie Bunker sound like Cicero.”

She was John McCain’s running mate, after all. (Though McCain disagrees with her about waterboarding.)

More interesting is how someone can move seamlessly from Team Rand to Team Bush depending on the circumstances. Palin is representative of large swathes of the Republican base.

Rank-and-file Republicans opposed Bill Clinton’s military interventions. Bill Kristol later recalled that the Weekly Standard, which published articles urging GOP pols to ignore the “conservative street” on these issues, lost subscribers over backing Clinton on the Balkans.

George W. Bush ran for president promising a “humble foreign policy” and talking about exit strategies, not nation-building. The 9/11 terrorist attacks changed all that, and the party changed with Bush.

Nearly everyone favored hitting the Taliban and going after Osama bin Laden in retaliation against the murder of our countrymen. But an overwhelming majority of Republicans signed up for nation-building too. Only seven Republicans in both houses of Congress voted against the Iraq war. Only three of them were conservatives.

Palin may or may not have supported Pat Buchanan in the 1990s. She supported all of the above during the Bush administration. In 2008, she described Ron Paul as “cool.”

The GOP has followed a similar course. Even since Barack Obama has been president, we have seen Republicans vote with Dennis Kucinich against war in Libya and actually stop war with Syria. Then some of those same Republicans have rapped Obama for being too dovish with Russia and Iran.

The New York Times‘ Ross Douthat has observed, “the Republican base doesn’t really have a detailed set of foreign policy positions.”

“What it has, instead,” he continues, “is the cluster of sympathies and instincts (pro-Israel, pro-military, nationalist rather than globalist, fretful about radical Islam, skeptical of international institutions) that Walter Russell Mead has famously dubbed ‘Jacksonianism,’ which can incline G.O.P. voters for or against different policy choices depending on how those options are presented.”

Consider Palin’s Rand Paul endorsement, as recounted by the Kentucky senator in his 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington. “She wanted to know my position on Israel,” he wrote. “I said that Israel was an important ally, the only democracy in the Middle East and that I would not condemn Israel for defending herself.”

Republicans who respect the base’s instincts can get a fair hearing in a foreign policy debate. Those who don’t end up like Chuck Hagel.

Most of the party doesn’t fit neatly into one foreign-policy camp or another. That’s why the same people who “Stand with Rand” on drones take a different line on negotiations with Iran.

Conservatives who believe that the early 2000s GOP was too inclined to use military force and insufficiently respectful of civil liberties have a clear path toward changing the party.

The way to reshape Republican foreign policy is to first win the Sarah Palin primary.

W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.