The most popular conservative demagogue in America signals that hawkish foreign-policy dogma may be losing its hold on the GOP.
In the spring of 2011, I wrote a widely ignored article arguing that the Republican Party's presidential nominee would be hard pressed to successfully run to President Obama's right on national security, given Obama's aggressive approach to counterterrorism and the country's war weariness, but that pushing back against his War on Terror excesses would be good politics and policy:
"Imagine a nominee who a) issued a biting, accurate take-down of security theater, and inflamed voter passions by becoming a demagogue on naked airport scanners and intrusive pat-downs; b) Insisted that Libya was an imprudent, unaffordable war that had nothing to do with American interests, and was illegally launched; c) Tore into Obama for asserting the power to assassinate American citizens in secret, hammering on the obvious imprudence and frightening potential for abuse; d) pointed out that we'd be a lot safer if we redirected money now spent on nation-building in Afghanistan to almost any halfway effective, achievable counter-terrorism measure); e) picked one or two of the most egregious civil liberties abuses going on and pinned them on Obama."
What I described sure resembles the approach that Rand Paul has taken. Amazingly, several Tea Party-aligned senators now seem to be playing along. And most surprising of all? Rush Limbaugh, the demagogue most attuned to the rank-and-file, is now celebrating Paul's approach.
As Ross Douthat and Dave Weigel debate whether Republicans are rallying around the Kentucky senator because he is merely attacking drones on U.S. soil rather than the War on Terror or if there is a new openness to foreign-policy realism, a segment from the March 8, 2013 Rush Limbaugh Show has got to be considered a significant data point supporting the latter theory.
The monologue gets provocative fast.
"The neocons are paranoid.The neocons are paranoid because Rand Paul comes from his father's gene pool. This isolationist wing is worried about maybe there's something more going on here than simply opposing drone strikes. There's all kinds of ramifications. Well, they might think he's a kook, but they're worried that he's a kook that nobody thinks is a kook, and so they'll follow him. He's a stealth kook," Limbaugh explains to his listeners. "It's their thinking. I don't think this." [emphasis added]
The program breaks. Upon its return, a caller comes on the air:
Hello, Rush. I'm calling about Lindsey Graham and John McCain. I am really ticked off as a veteran the way John McCain and Lindsey Graham have basically sold out somebody that they should have supporting. They went and had a nice party with Obama, then they come back down to the floor of the Senate and act like his attack dogs. They may be calling it bipartisan, but in the old days -- John McCain will be well aware of this term -- it's called being a collaborator. They need to quit straddling the fence, land on one side or the other, 'cause the people are sick and tired of it. You know, it's getting to be too much. They are not working for us. They really need to go back to the floor of the Senate, maybe make a public apology to Rand Paul. They need to make an apology to Marco Rubio, to Cruz, and I can't remember the name of the Democrat that also came out and supported, 'cause this is just back-stabbing gone way beyond the pale.
Senator McCain really did Paul a favor by attacking him. The conservative base has no love for the interventionist Arizonan. Neither does Limbaugh.
What follows is some typical Limbaugh bloviating about how Obama is "intentionally inflicting pain on the American people via his sequester" and a nonsensical but obligatory Benghazi reference. It's only when he circles back to Paul and the filibuster that things get really interesting. There's a tantalizing tidbit about Congressional Republicans afraid of being seen as unsupportive of Paul's filibuster:
There has been such an upside down turning of the power structure. Our office is getting phone calls begging us not to lump certain Republicans in with the ones we're criticizing. "Hey, don't talk about me. I wasn't at that dinner. Don't talk about me. I came out and I stood up with Rand Paul." There has been a major, major shift here. There's more to it than you can see inside the power structure in Washington, inside the Republican Party. And for McCain now to come call these guys kooks and wackos illustrates exactly what's wrong.
Limbaugh states outright that this is about foreign policy, not just drones, and that the neocons are scared:
Here's the substance of this. There is a fear among McCain, Lindsey Graham, and others who favor an interventionist foreign policy. Think of the neocons.Think of going into Iraq and not just securing Iraq, but building a democracy. Nation building, if you will. Think of the outbreak of the Arab Spring and the people on our side who thought, "Wow, this is wonderful. This is the outbreak of American democracy," when it wasn't. It was the exact opposite. Rand Paul, they're asking themselves, is he his father's son or is he on his own here? They're worried that he's his father's son. They're worried that Rand Paul is an isolationist. They're worried that Rand Paul's diatribe on drones really means that Rand Paul wants to bring the military home and not use it unless we're attacked. He doesn't like it being used in an intervention. This is what they fear. And as he succeeds in making a connection with the American people, they are worried, the neocons are worried that they are being undermined by this.
The talk radio host seems to think the neocons are right to be scared:
He isn't entirely complimentary about neocon motives:
I'll tell you why. Rand Paul made a connection with the American people. These other people do not. He made a connection. Therefore, he has the ability to influence and motivate people. I'm telling you what their fears are. They thought that Ron Paul was absolute nutcase, wacko. That's why they're calling Rand Paul a wacko, 'cause that's what they thought of Ron Paul. Libertarian, fruitcake, nutcase, isolationist, shut down the US military, speak positively about Islamists, all this kind of stuff. They are afraid that's who Rand Paul is, and they're afraid that what Rand Paul was doing with this filibuster was not just speaking out against the use of drones on American citizens on American soil. They're afraid that Rand Paul is actually setting the stage for building up public support to stop the interventionist usage of American military might and foreign policy all over the world. It's a fear that they've got.
It's also the whole notion of jealousy in power politics. Let me put it this way. They, I think, are worried that Rand Paul might be skillful enough to move the Republican mainstream away from the McCain, Kristol, neoconservatism view of the world and toward a position that is not as extreme as his father's, but is suspicious of interventionism, suspicious of Islamic democracy building, suspicious of financial and military support for dubious regimes.So what does Limbaugh think? Is Rand Paul a kook, like McCain says?
He's now a national figure. He wasn't wild-eyed and screaming and pounding. He was very rational and very reasonable. He was asking a very simple, easily explained and understood question... So it was easily understood. It was a very simple question he was posing, and all this was going on while our guys are out dining with Obama, dining with the architect of this current nationwide mess. Rand Paul was standing up opposing this while these guys were out yukking it up with the architect of it all. You know it was a great example of the ruling class and the country class, and the ruling class not liking what this country class senator was doing. It's no more complicated than that, but a lot of people are ticked off about this, too.This is just one radio segment. Limbaugh is always liable to contradict himself. But if the neocons were to lose their grip on the Rush Limbaugh right, this is exactly what it would look like. So is this:
I want you to imagine the scene. That was their big night! The guys at dinner with Obama, that was their big night. The next day there'd be pictures, news stories, accounts on cable news of Republicans dining with Obama. It's a big, big bipartisan evening. It's major progress! They're gonna finally everything working together, getting things done. Now, imagine you're sitting at dinner. You're at that table wherever they were, and you've got your iPhone. You're a Republican senator or whoever else was there.So there you go.
You've got your iPad Mini, maybe, or your iPhone, your smartphone, and all of a sudden they start going nuts and you pull out your iPad or you pull out your phone and you look at it, and you see Rand Paul has the nation captivated back in the Senate chamber with a filibuster -- while you're sitting there with Obama and nobody's noticing. You look this, and you start beating your head against the table, 'cause Rand Paul's getting everything that you intended to gain from that dinner.
And he's a freshman.
And he's a wacko!"Ron Paul's his dad. He's an absolute nutcase Libertarian, and he's talking about drones? Nobody wants to drop a drone on the American people. What the hell is this?" But he has the nation captivated. It's caused a real reversal. Not a reversal, but the whole structure of things has now been upset, and it's got a lot of people concerned, and it has legs. It does have legs. So I think it's fascinating to behold, and once again it illustrates that these guys going to dinner with Obama, they were not challenging him.
They were not. People think this country is falling apart. People think that this country's on its last legs as they know it, as it was founded. People in this country are really scared. There is a despondency among the population, a majority of the population. This isn't just politics-as-usual. As far as the population the country's concerned, the opposition party still doesn't get it to the point that they're not even the opposition party! Well, Rand Paul appeared to be the opposition, and he had the guts and the courage to stand up and demand that they explain something to him. And not only is he alive to tell about it, he's not being called names.
He's a hero to people.
Given its track record since 9/11, the Rush Limbaugh right is obviously totally unreliable when it comes to civil liberties, executive power, and foreign-policy realism. At the same time, its capacity for cognitive dissonance, hatred of Democrats, mistrust of Obama, war-weariness, paranoia about tyrannical government, and ideological predisposition to Constitution-citing rhetoric makes the block as suited to following Rand Paul as John McCain or Bill Kristol, especially if the latter men are ultimately arguing -- as they must if they want to be coherent -- that Obama should be trusted to wield extreme power, in secret, with good judgment and moral rectitude.
The best thing about partisan demagoguery is that the powerful have automatic adversaries to challenge them. On foreign policy, there hasn't been any coherent challenge to Obama from the right.
Hopefully that's changing.
I don't want to exaggerate the size of the Rush Limbaugh right, which seems to end up every four years with the GOP presidential nominee they least desire. The behavior of moderate Republicans matters more. What I do want to make is the modest claim that Limbaugh giving this treatment to the "Paul vs. McCain" divide -- even highlighting rather than glossing over the larger foreign-policy divisions at play -- shows that the whole GOP is already in a very different place than it was prior to Election 2012, when every primary candidate with any chance of ultimately leading the party competed to stake out the most bellicose, hawkish positions possible, led by Mitt Romney, the eventual victor. I can't help but wonder how events might've unfolded if the GOP hadn't wasted four years on the wrong critique of Obama's foreign policy.
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