Tea Party Isn’t Mellowing GOP Militarism

Lindsay Graham isn’t alone when he imagines an emerging “isolationist wing” of the Republican Congress. Pundits have lately both lamented and celebrated the arrival of a Tea Party foreign policy, where deficit fears restrain military adventures and Pentagon spending.

I wish there were such a thing. My op-ed in yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer shows that there isn’t.  I report there on research that I did (really research that intern Matt Fay did) on support among Republicans in the House and Senate for cutting defense spending and getting out of Afghanistan. I found little.

I also tested the idea that the Tea Party is restraining Republican militarism, by comparing the 101 freshmen that largely claim adherence to that movement to other Republican members. Freshmen are not more dovish than the rest, suggesting that the Tea Party reflects Republican politics more than it guides it. A post I put up yesterday on the National Interest’s Skeptics blog illustrates this point with charts.

As Tad DeHaven notes, Congressional Republicans, including leaders in both Houses, have increasingly said that they would support defense cuts as part of a deficit reduction package. But those taking that position remain a minority of their party–fifteen percent by a generous accounting, comprising roughly equal fractions of new and old members. And the cuts that the minority of Republican want are likely to be cosmetic, trimming fat and chasing efficiencies, not taming the beast by taking on less missions and cutting force structure. For these reasons, it’s not surprising that the symbolic spending cut resolution up for a House vote Tuesday exempts the nearly two-thirds of domestic spending labeled as “security,” as I discussed in another Skeptics post.

GOP support for indefinite war in Afghanistan is stronger. Only ten Congressional Republicans are obviously against that war, and not one is a Senator or a freshman. That last bit bears repeating: none of the 101 new Republican members of the House and Senate are clearly against the war in Afghanistan.

The difference between new and old Republicans on these issues is that the new members are less likely to have firm positions. They got elected largely without expressing coherent views on defense issues. Since then, many seem to be reading the tea-leaves and keeping quiet about those matters.  But they will soon be tied into positions as they justify votes. So the coming months are crucial in determining how a big chunk of Republicans vote for some time.

I am not optimistic that many will side with those of us that would like to vastly scale back our foreign policy. In the Skeptics post I explain why:

The GOP has been in the habit, probably since the 1970s, of out-hawking the Democrats and equating military aggressiveness with support for the military and American virtue. Whether that is winning political strategy I’m not sure (yes in 2004, no in 2008), but it is at least a powerful habit, reinforced by decades of neoconservative warbling, whose authors are now ensconced in the nation’s most prominent op-ed pages and think tanks.

Beyond that, military spending bestows its munificence in many districts, generating bipartisan support. But, on the left, the prospect of spending caps creates countervailing interests. Caps force defenders of other domestic spending to be dovish on defense. Health care’s cost competes with the Navy’s, especially under budget caps. That’s not as issue on the right.

The most important force keeping Republican fond of military adventure, however, is common to Democrats: international opportunity. We have expansive foreign policies because we can. Balancing is weak. The costs of adventurism are few and diffuse. For Europeans alive 100 years ago, foreign policy failures could bring conquest and mass death. Even successful wars would kill many sons and consume a considerable portion of societal wealth. For most Americans, especially since the draft ended, foreign policy disasters bring marginally higher tax rates. Ideologies justifying expansive policies—liberal internationalism on the left, neoconservatism on the right—grow popular because they justify the behavior this structure allows.

Doves say that the United States cannot afford its foreign policy. The problem is that it can, even when recessions make the load a bit harder to bear. Unsustainable things end. The United States can afford to do all sorts of foolish things.