Paul is not staking out these positions to win over actual voters. Given that ordinary Republicans oppose arming the rebels in Syria, want a negotiated deal on Iran, and want America to refrain more from intervening militarily overseas, Paul would probably gain greater public support by sticking with a more dovish line and thus distinguishing himself in a multi-candidate field. What’s motivating him is not the New Hampshire primary but the invisible primary. Paul has been ardently wooing GOP donors, who tend to be far more hawkish than Republicans as a whole, and who have threatened to mobilize against his candidacy. And according to Politico, he’s told several of them that his foreign-policy views are “evolving.”
Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness is more sincere. She’s been on the hawkish end of the Democratic spectrum since entering electoral politics a decade and a half ago. Still, were it not for the influence that moneyed elites wield over the presidential process, it would be much harder for her to take views so at odds with most Democratic voters. Clinton lost in 2008, after all, in large measure because she had backed the war in Iraq while Obama had not. If a credible progressive challenger in 2016 tied Hillary’s current interventionism to her past interventionism under the rubric “she still doesn’t get it,” they’d find a receptive audience, especially in Iowa, where Democratic caucus-goers are particularly dovish.
Yet there’s little evidence that any serious challenger is considering taking this approach. That’s partly because Democratic primary voters, while overwhelmingly dovish, are not focused on foreign policy in the way they were during the Iraq War. And it’s partly because even progressive Democrats like Elizabeth Warren are influenced by the more hawkish perspective common among party donors. That’s especially true on the Middle East. Polling shows that rank-and-file Democrats are fairly critical of Israel’s recent war in Gaza, for instance. But last month, even progressive firebrands like Warren supported a Senate resolution so hawkish that it did not even acknowledge that any Palestinians in Gaza had died.
It’s worth analyzing the current moment in historical perspective. For a century, Americans have responded to disillusioning wars by demanding a less interventionist foreign policy. It happened after World War 1, after Korea, after Vietnam, and it’s happening again in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq. The difference between this moment and past ones is the role of money in politics. As on so many issues, politicians’ need to raise vast sums from the super-rich makes them ultra-responsive to one, distinct sliver of the population and less responsive to everyone else. The way campaign finance warps the political debate over financial regulation is well known. What we’re witnessing this year is a case study in the way it warps the foreign-policy debate as well.
In 2008, Obama was elected president in part because he had deviated from a hawkish, largely bipartisan, elite foreign-policy perspective that facilitated the war in Iraq. Six years later, Obama is still deviating, and so are the American people. Yet the elite consensus is stronger than ever, and in the run-up to 2016, that consensus—more than public opinion—is driving the presidential debate. No wonder Americans are cynical.