Rand Paul’s nearly 13-hour filibuster last week was very much a creature of its moment: The Republican senator from Kentucky captured the imagination of his party as it searches for a new champion—and of the nation as it grapples with this new technology. His GOP colleagues and even some liberal Democrats rushed to the floor to hear Paul conjure a dark dystopia, in which a future president targets Americans in neighborhood cafés with Hellfire missile strikes. “The Fifth Amendment protects you … from a king placing you in the tower, but it should also protect you from a president that might kill you with a drone,” the libertarian intoned.
Not long ago, the GOP’s small-government zeal exempted defense. Then came the inconclusive wars of the Bush years, the rise of the tea party (which prizes deficit reduction over defense spending), and Mitt Romney’s failed campaign, which stood on a traditional “peace through strength” platform. Long before Paul began his diatribe, Republicans were willing to ransom the Pentagon during the sequestration drama—and then they happily shot their own hostage. These seismic rumblings are drawing party stalwarts away from their customary pro-defense posture, and they come at a time when pro-defense Democrats—think of departed Reps. Ike Skelton of Missouri and John Murtha of Pennsylvania, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn.—are also vanishing. All of which spells trouble for the national security establishment.
Any discussion of how Republicans find themselves so adrift on national security has to begin with President Reagan, who road-tested the peace-through-strength worldview with the largest peacetime defense buildup in the nation’s history. In truth, however, Reagan never reconciled the party’s instincts for low taxes and high defense spending, and the national debt more than tripled on his watch. He saved his legacy only by winning the Cold War, which allowed for a roughly one-third reduction in defense spending during the 1990s.
During President Clinton’s two terms, Republicans in Congress openly flirted with isolationism. They refused to pay U.S. dues to the United Nations, voted down the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and criticized the Balkan interventions as “Clinton’s wars.” Foreshadowing Paul’s vision of domestic drone assassinations, certain Republicans imagined the “black helicopters” of a one-world government flying over U.S. territory. Starting in the late 1990s, neoconservatives called for an aggressive foreign policy to confront tyrants, and by the time George W. Bush had been elected president, they’d won the argument. They restored their party’s pro-defense penchant, and many of them took top jobs in the administration.
But the neocons’ advocacy for the Iraq war—and close association with that debacle—sent the party back to the foreign policy drawing board. Romney tried to dust off the peace-through-strength mantra, but the country was sick of war, and the momentum within the GOP had swung back to the small-government and libertarian factions. “Part of this is generational change, because while a number of the older defense hawks in Congress were focused in recent years on trying to stay the course in Iraq and Afghanistan, the intellectual energy in the Republican Party shifted,” says Thomas Donnelly, a defense analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Unfortunately for the U.S. military, that dynamic suggests that we can’t even see where the bottom in defense spending lies yet.”
Hawks certainly sense the danger. Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham pleaded to exempt the Pentagon from the sequester and quickly mocked Rand Paul’s specter of looming American tyranny. (McCain called him a “wacko bird.”) The Weekly Standard chastised Paul for his “semi-hysterical” demagoguery and for acting as the “spokesman for the Code Pink faction” of the GOP. “Is embracing kookiness a winning strategy for the Republican Party?” The Standard editorialized. “We doubt it.” Lieberman frets that this all could lead to a new era of isolation. “The fact that there is a significant minority within the Republican Party that is suddenly not anxious about deep cuts in defense is a noteworthy and worrisome development,” he tells National Journal. “The world is very unstable right now, and if others see the United States pulling back, bad actors will fill the vacuum.”
With congressional centrists in retreat and Republicans abandoning the pro-defense battlements, the military is left trying to wind down a war with a fading constituency on Capitol Hill. So with a potential conflict with Iran looming, the Navy has been forced by sequestration to cancel an aircraft-carrier deployment to the Middle East. The Army has called off exercises to prepare a brigade combat team for deployment to Afghanistan this summer. The head of Pacific Air Forces has publicly apologized to thousands of civilian workers facing unpaid furloughs. The commandant of the Marine Corps has urged his Marines, some of whom are still fighting in Afghanistan, “to save every round, every gallon of gas.”
Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress and in the conservative punditry are ballyhooing their sequestration “victory” over the Obama administration. The GOP’s national chairman, Reince Priebus, called Paul’s filibuster “completely awesome.” Would Ronald Reagan even recognize this party?
This article appears in the March 16, 2013, edition of National Journal as Endangered Species.