Where is the Tea Party? And where do Republicans stand on foreign policy?

Nearly a year ago, I shared in this blog a fascinated look at the Tea Party. From a social movement theoretical perspective, and based on my own personal experience living in the US and on the analysis of news sources, I tried to identify a few lessons we could learn from the rapid rise and relative success of the Tea Party movement. I made (or borrowed) a couple of predictions: firstly, that the relevance of the Tea Party would diminish progressively; and secondly, on foreign policy, following Walter Russell Mead, the Palinite wing (after Sarah Palin: nationalist, vigorous and hawkish) would predominate over the Paulite wing of the Tea Party (after Ron Paul: isolationist and in favour of a limited interpretation of “national interests”). Has time confirmed or refuted these two predictions?

The first prediction, that the role of the Tea Party would decrease, was based on the understanding that, unlike mid-term voting, presidential elections require a much more proactive approach, based on messages, policies and plans persuasive enough to convince about half of the voters. Negative messages (against Obama, against Obamacare, against socialism, against DC bureaucrats, and so on) worked in November 2010, but simply weren´t going to be enough two years later. Although several of the primary candidates were endorsed by different Tea Party groups, Republicans eventually chose Mitt Romney, considered much more moderate than almost anybody else in the race. Romney picked Paul Ryan as his running mate, an intelligent move that quickly evoked sympathy from the most economically neoliberal and socially conservative supporters. Yet, traditional Tea Party voices do not seem visible in the campaign. It seems that either we accept that by means of Representative Ryan, the Tea Party has become part of the establishment, or that the Tea Party has moved away from the political stage, for now.

As per the second prediction, the foreign policies of the Republican Party, we observed one year ago that there was a lack of clarity on matters of foreign affairs among Republican primary candidates. Ron Paul was one of them, but he lost in an undisputable way, and the way he was booed in one of the debates overtly shows how isolated he remains in the Republican Party, at least regarding foreign policy.

Mitt Romney visited Israel a few months ago and there he said he’s willing to use “any and all measures” against Iran to protect America’s very best friends. Romney said that as soon as he gets to office, he would denounce China for manipulating its own currency. And he branded Russia as America’s “top geopolitical foe”. Finally, both Romney and Ryan have made clear that the military would be exempt of their budget cuts. According to Carol Giacomo in The New York Times, the base budget for 2013 (not including war-related costs) comes to $525 billion, up roughly 34% from 2001; by 2022, Mr. Romney’s plan would increase annual spending to $986 billion.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will have the last debate tonight, which will be devoted to foreign affairs. Foreign policy is the policy issue in which incumbents often are deemed to compete at an advantage. Foreign policy is also the issue in which the check and balances of American policy-making are less relevant, since the president holds considerable power by himself (except the declaration of war, which didn´t prevent Obama from intervening in Libya). Somebody said once that you can´t win based only on foreign policy but you may very well loose because of foreign policy. Bin Laden is dead (and GM is alive!). There isn´t much more to say. Besides, Democrats are using patriotism to drown out criticism of the president, just like George W. Bush. In a few hours we will know who wins the debate. And in a few days we will know who will be the next commander in chief of the US army and, therefore, the main character in international relations. If Romney wins, to what extent will he comply by his own words and promises? If Obama wins, what changes will he make, if any, in his second and last mandate? And, in this second case, will the Republican Party ever reconsider its nationalist and interventionist foreign policy approach?

Koldo Casla


Photo: Mitt Romney prepares to deliver a foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute on Monday in Lexington, Virginia (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images).


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