Kevin Drum asks:

Honest question here. I’ve been wondering this for a while, but it crystallized last night after reading this Ross Douthat post about conservative foreign policy. My question is: Is there really a big foreign policy split in the Republican Party?

Good question. Drum says that if this is simply a fight between Senator Rand Paul and everyone else, it isn’t a meaningful split. And Paul is much quicker to seek rhetorical safe ground than his father was.

The way to look at this question is to remember that most of the time, and for most people in both parties, foreign affairs and national security aren’t central to either their electoral prospects or their policy concerns. Other than in times of war, voters generally don’t care about foreign policy. With the exception of people who specialize in the issue, the same appears to be true of many politicians and governing professionals from both parties.

So unless a party believes its electoral interests are at stake or unless new people enter the party who care passionately about foreign policy, the debate takes place mostly among specialists. For Republicans, many of those were either in the George W. Bush administration or strong cheerleaders for its actions. And many of them never stopped defending the Bush administration’s record.

It’s interesting that, over the last decade, very few Republicans seem to have seen the Bush foreign-policy record as an electoral risk, at least beyond the course correction immediately after the 2006 election. That’s very different from the way Democrats reacted to their own foreign-policy fiascos in 1968 and after.

So I suppose the answer is that there is a foreign-policy split between the Paulites and an overwhelming majority of the Republican Party. And that many sensible Republicans within that majority believe something when horribly wrong among their national security-professionals in the middle of the last decade, but there’s no movement to do anything about it.

This isn’t a recipe for future policy success.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.