Outside the Capitol, hundreds of tea party activists rallied Thursday to pressure congressional Republicans to cut the budget to the bone. Inside, one of the movement’s heroes, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, was calling for the U.S. to expand its already costly mission in Libya.
These potentially competing interests are poised to shape the early stages of the 2012 presidential election in still-unpredictable ways. While tea party activists are trying to maintain a singular focus on taming the deficit, a growing number of Republicans, including former presidential nominee John McCain, are urging the U.S. to wade deeper into a conflict that’s topped $600 million.
It’s a clash of quintessential GOP themes—cutting government spending vs. getting tough on terrorists—that’s forcing presidential contenders to redefine in a rapidly changing world what it means to be a Republican.
Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to pin down the likely candidates on the crisis in Libya. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney says he supports the air strikes but that the U.S. should go it alone; former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty says President Obama waited too long to attack; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was for a no-fly zone until Obama ordered one.
Then there’s Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who staked out new ground when he suggested the U.S. needs to be cautious about “nation-building’’ at a time when the defense budget should be getting smaller, not bigger. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, another possible contender in 2012, chided Obama mostly for taking military action without approval from Congress, but he also pointed to the costs. “Libya is not the American people’s fight,’’ he declared.
The push and pull between isolationists and interventionists in the GOP is nothing new, but the rise of the tea party puts new pressures on the traditional foreign policy debate. As the recession grinds on, the movement’s cymbal clanging about the national debt could turn Republicans away from costly foreign conflicts. That would mark a major reversal after years of campaigning as the stronger party on national security.
“You’ve got this image of Republicans as hard-headed businessmen vs. the neo-conservatives who believe in upholding America’s image in the word as exceptional,’’ said Larry Korb of the Center for American Progress, who served assistant defense secretary under Ronald Reagan but supported Barack Obama in 2008. “The tea party movement seems to be going back to that Republican mold of being cautious about overseas involvement. People forget that when Eisenhower ran for president, the Republican party was the isolationist party.’’
And it was a focus on the deficit, not defense, that helped deliver widespread Republican victories in 2010. The party was gearing up to employ a similar strategy in 2012, allowing all breeds of Republicans to unify around an economic message powerful enough to take back the White House.
Then came the crisis in Libya, layered on top of the budget-busting military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. On March 19, the U.S. and its United Nations allies launched air strikes to protect civilians under attack for protesting the repressive regime. President Obama insisted that Muammar el-Qaddafi “must go’’ but argued that broadening the mission to force him from power would be a costly and dangerous venture.
Among the Republicans calling for a more aggressive approach is Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, who told a House committee Thursday that he doesn’t believe in “limited war.’’ He added, “I believe that if America chooses to go to war, then by God, you go to war to win.’’
Earlier that day, when he addressed the crowd of tea party activists at the Capitol, Pence railed against “the mountain of debt that threatens our children’s future.’’ He didn’t mention Libya, the latest burden on the federal budget.
The tea party, by its loosely organized, amorphous nature, doesn’t have a foreign policy. Both traditional realists and neoconservative idealists identify with the movement. But tea party leaders are clear about their singular focus.
“We try to confine ourselves to the economic issues that are most pressing,’’ said Sal Russo, a longtime Republican strategist based in California who has played a prominent role in the tea party. “Our bottom line is that we have to bring the spending and excessive debt down for America to be competitive.’’
While Russo maintained that the goal doesn’t preclude an aggressive foreign policy, he said, “If you think spending money in Libya should be a priority, then you have to have some idea of where you are going to cut.’’
Rubio wasn’t that specific in his letter to Senate Majority Harry Reid demanding a vote to authorize military action to remove Qaddafi. Asked about the costs of such an undertaking, Rubio said through a spokesman: “I am concerned that at a time we have a debt of $14 trillion we have this new expenditure.’’ But he added, “If he survives our military engagement against him and hangs on to power, we will spend a lot more dealing with an angry and emboldened Qaddafi all over the world for years to come. We are already in. Now we have no choice but to win.’’