Last week's CPAC conference drew some early attention to the 2016 Republican primary season. Given the likelihood that Hillary Clinton's candidacy will preclude a Democratic presidential primary in 2016, the Republican primary will likely be the more competitive and entertaining primary during the next presidential election. While Rand Paul's victory in the CPAC straw poll means very little, there were some signals from the CPAC conference that have some bearing on American politics over the next 32 months or so.
The first is the fight between the Tea Party and the regular Republicans that has become a talking point presented by many in the Republican establishment. The purpose of this talking point is to lay the groundwork for creating the perception that there is a moderate wing of the Republican Party, and that the 2016 nominee will come from that wing. This is a very clever pivot by Republican strategists who recognize that they cannot win if the entire party is viewed as the Tea Party. The primary problem with this talking point is that there is very little truth to it. The notion that there is a division between Tea Partiers and centrists within the Republican Party is a fiction belied by the last five or six years of Republican Party politics.
The difference between the Tea Party and the rest of the Republican Party is minor and more a matter of style than substance. This is not a division based on big picture policy differences in which, for example, the mainstream Republicans understand that seeking to slightly raise taxes on the wealthy does not make somebody a socialist or that income inequality should be a concern to all policy makers interested in stewarding the economy towards prosperity. Moreover, mainstream Republicans have been alarmingly reserved over the last five years in their reactions to the often offensive statements made by some in the Tea Party movement.
The storyline of division within the Republican Party is an easy one to perpetrate because for most of the last century both major parties have had centrist and more extreme branches; and many presidential primaries have been battles between those two wings. The interesting thing about the Republican Party today is that, to a very large extent, this framework no longer applies. While there are divisions within the party based on whether economic or social politics are emphasized, the consensus on far right ideology, particularly with regards to economics, is the real story. The only exception is on foreign policy where the difference between people like Rand Paul and neocons like John McCain is notable, and reflects a growing rift between the foreign policy establishment and ordinary Americans that is increasingly central to the national foreign policy debate.
The division within the Republican Party on foreign policy is legitimately based in differing views and positions, but cannot be easily described as pitting moderates against extremists or anything like that. Both the neoconservatives like McCain and those less committed to an activist foreign policy, like Paul, can claim to be conservatives. They are simply drawing from different conservative foreign policy traditions.
This foreign policy division is much more significant, and genuine, than the imagined rift between Tea Partiers and regulars. The former speaks to a growing debate about the U.S. role in the world that is increasingly important for many voters, while the latter is primarily a media talking point. The division on foreign policy is likely to be a central part of the 2016 Republican primary, but is much less likely to play a role in the Democratic primary, not least because there may only be one major Democrat seeking the nomination in 2016.
Hillary Clinton is a firm believer in an active and internationalist US foreign policy. Some of her views, for example her recent comments on the conflict in Crimea, would not be at all out of place among what is left of the neoconservatives who were so influential during the Bush administration. A Clinton candidacy means that the only foreign policy debate in 2016 will be within the Republican Party and, depending on who wins that primary, potentially one between a Democrat supporting broad US intervention and a Republican calling for a reduced role of the US in global affairs. If that is the case, the direction of foreign policy could be a good issue for the Republicans in 2016.
The division within the Republican Party to watch is not the fake one between moderates and radicals, but the real one that is centered on different visions of the U.S. role in the world. There is a growing disparity between a deeply interventionist foreign policy establishment and an electorate that is increasingly unenthusiastic about ambitious foreign policy agendas. That view crosses party lines, but as 2016 approaches, the Republicans, depending on how their primary goes, may be the party best poised to address it.