Coming to political theater near you: The Republican establishment targets rebel forces battling for libertarianism and isolationism in a twist on the George Lucas classic, The Empire Strikes Back.
The neoconservatives who have dominated the GOP since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are increasingly pushing back after an insurgency against government spying and foreign intervention led by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. The backlash to the backlash is coming not just from old-guard hawks like Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rep. Peter King of New York, but also from rising stars like Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas--one of the GOP's highest hopes for picking up a Senate seat in 2014.
Rubio, viewed as a likely Paul rival for the White House in 2016, used Thursday's debate over President Obama's nomination for ambassador to the United Nations to remind voters that the war on terror is not over.
"To follow the advice of those, including some in the Republican Party, who advocate disengagement from the world would be a terrible mistake," Rubio said. He added, "People are still plotting against us, and not if but when they strike again, the American people are going to turn to us and ask us, 'What has the federal government been doing to prevent this?' We'd better have a good answer because we live in a very dangerous world."
The GOP's hawkish wing gained another high-profile spokesman one week ago when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called a growing streak of libertarianism in both parties "very dangerous." That a governor overseeing a massive recovery from a natural disaster felt compelled to wade into a foreign policy debate speaks to Christie's national ambitions and sets the stage for the 2016 presidential primary.
"It does forecast a very significant fault line in the upcoming battles for control of the direction of the party," said Republican strategist Curt Anderson, who advises another potential 2016 contender, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. "The libertarian mindset is gaining ground."
As Paul called for a truce with Christie after a few days of backbiting, his colleagues in the Senate on Wednesday quashed his effort to cut off aid to Egypt in the wake of a military takeover there. "If you eliminate aid completely, you lose leverage ... and our influence will be diminished," said Rubio, the son of Cuban-American immigrants who sees the United States as a global freedom fighter.
The battle between neoconservatives and the GOP's isolationist wing dates back decades but has inched to center stage since Paul's 13-hour filibuster over President Obama's choice to lead the CIA in March. Paul has taken up the anti-interventionist crusade led by his father, former presidential candidate and tea party icon Ron Paul, but with more charisma and political savvy. His timing is also better; after two presidential elections in which jobs were the most pressing issue, the economy is slowly improving.
"If you look at the George W. Bush era and the presidential races since then, Ron Paul was a lone voice on the stage asking if we were intervening in too many places," said Trygve Olson, a top adviser to both father and son. "As we move further from 9/11, some of the policies that were implemented start to look like overreach, mission creep if you will. Part of Sen. Paul's resonance is that more Americans on both sides of the political spectrum are concerned and desire a discussion about whether we have become overly aggressive towards civil liberties in trying to fight terrorism."
In another sign of mounting concern about civil liberties, an amendment by Republican Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan to limit government surveillance of phone records neared passage in the House one week ago. Republicans portray revelations about government snooping into phone records, the IRS's scrutiny of political groups, and the response to the terrorist attacks in Benghazi as part of a pattern of government overreach by the Obama administration. Which begs the question: Would Republicans continue speaking up against government surveillance if there were a Republican in the White House?
"This libertarian revival you're seeing is in some ways a response to a president who ideologically believes in a bigger government," said Jindal when he and Christie recently shared a stage at an Aspen, Colo., political forum. "What we've seen is the incompetence of a larger government."