A combination of early presidential maneuvering and internal policy debate is feeding yet another iteration of that media perennial: the great Republican crackup. This time it’s tea party insurgents versus get-along establishment fogies fighting principally over two things: (a) national security and (b) Obamacare.
Gov. Chris Christie recently challenged Sen. Rand Paul over his opposition to the National Security Agency metadata program. Paul has also tangled with Sen. John McCain and other internationalists over drone warfare, democracy promotion and, more generally, intervention abroad.
So what else is new? The return of the most venerable strain of conservative foreign policy — isolationism — was utterly predictable. GOP isolationists dominated until Pearl Harbor and then acquiesced to an activist internationalism during the Cold War because of a fierce detestation of communism.
Both parties are internally split on domestic surveillance, as reflected in the very close recent House vote on curbing the NSA. This is not civil war. It’s a healthy debate that helps recalibrate the delicate line between safety and security as conditions (threat level and surveillance technology, for example) change.
The more fundamental GOP divide is over foreign aid and other manifestations of our role as the world’s leading power. The Paulites, pining for the splendid isolation of the 19th century, want to leave the world alone on the assumption that it will then leave us alone.
Which rests on the further assumption that international stability — open sea lanes, free commerce, relative tranquility — come naturally, like the air we breathe. If only that were true. Unfortunately, stability is not a matter of grace. It comes about only by Great Power exertion.
In the 19th century, that meant the British navy, behind whose protection America thrived. Today, alas, Britannia rules no waves. World order is maintained by American power and American will. Take that away and you don’t get tranquility. You get chaos.
The other battle is about defunding Obamacare. Led by Sens. Mike Lee and Ted Cruz, the GOP insurgents are threatening to shut down the government on Oct. 1 if the stopgap funding bill contains money for Obamacare.
This is nuts. President Barack Obama will never sign a bill defunding the singular achievement of his presidency. Especially when he has control of the Senate. Especially when, though a narrow majority (51 percent) of Americans disapprove of Obamacare, only 36 percent favor repeal. Obama knows that he’ll win any shutdown showdown that he’s practically goading the Republicans into trying.
Never make a threat on which you are not prepared to deliver. Every fiscal showdown has rebounded against the Republicans. The first, in 1995, effectively marked the end of the Gingrich revolution. The latest, last December, led to a last-minute Republican cave that humiliated the GOP and did nothing to stop the tax increase it so strongly opposed.
Those who fancy themselves tea party patriots fighting a sold-out cocktail-swilling establishment are demanding yet another cliff dive as a show of principle and manliness.
But there’s no principle at stake here. This is about tactics. If I thought this would work, I would support it. But I don’t fancy suicide. It has a tendency to be fatal.
How many times must we learn the lesson? You can’t govern from one house of Congress. You need to win back the Senate and then the presidency. Shutting down the government is the worst possible way to get there. Indeed, it’s Obama’s fondest hope for a Democratic revival.