The GOP’s Hawks Lost The Shutdown Fight, And Maybe The Party

CREDIT: Shutterstock
CREDIT: Shutterstock

People have been so busy debating what the shutdown fight means for the Tea Party that they’ve overlooked one of its most interesting storylines: the utter marginalization of neoconservatives during the recent budget battles.

The number one goal of Republican hawks is maintaining American military primacy. You can’t project power you don’t have. As it happens though, the foundations of American military dominance are quite strong: we spend more money on our armed forces, have better tech, and boast a bigger economy (by far) than any competitors.

It would take a huge shock to the global system to unseat the U.S. from its dominant perch — a shock like defaulting on our debt, for instance. Dan Drezner, pivoting off the for-now idle Chinese threat to “start considering building a de-Americanized world,” explains:

Thanks to the Mongolian clusterf**k that Ted Cruz, John Boehner, and some other economic know-nothings in the U.S. Congress have perpetuated, the next decade of global political economy will provide an excellent natural experiment to see whether there will be any form of economic balancing against the United States. Realists have been advocating predicting balancing behavior again and again and again and again since the end of the Cold War. It hasn’t come to pass — the benefits of U.S.-centered globalization have been too good for most countries. Furthermore, there are pretty sound reasons to believe that the future is bright for the U.S. economy. The question is whether it’s worth being dependent on a growing economy that’s so politically unreliable. So now we’re gonna see whether incipient U.S. rivals will start making the necessary down payments to act on their increasingly justified complaints.

In other words, the specter of economic collapse raised by two rounds of economic brinksmanship are the most serious threat to U.S. primacy since the Soviet Union. Neoconservatives surely recognize the threat posed by increasing global distrust of the U.S. economy, yet appear to have had virtually no effect on the GOP’s shutdown stance. Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AK), the most prominent up-and-coming hawk, split the difference, rhetorically supporting the Cruz strategy while ultimately voting for the deal.


The GOP stampede to defend sequestration during the shutdown fight is more evidence of the hawks’ growing marginalization. The military hates sequestration — it slashes military spending in a particularly stupid across-the-board fashion. These cuts were designed to be painful for congressional Republicans, an incentive to develop a better budget compromise with Democrats.

But during the shutdown fight, Senate Republicans circled the sequestration wagons. Forced into a defensive crouch by the House’s boneheadedness, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell spun the deal as at least a partial win because maintaining sequestration has “been a priority for me and my Republican colleagues.” McConnell’s remarks “made clear just how far the [defense] industry has fallen in its influence on Capitol Hill,” Politico’s Austin Wright wrote.

McConnell’s remarks are the culmination of months of Republican repositioning wherein sequestration went from a painful compromise to the party’s preferred spending level. The obvious conclusion: Republican obsession with keeping domestic spending and taxes low are swamping the hawks’ interest in keeping defense spending high.

Why has hawkishness, traditionally one of the three legs of the conservative policy “stool,” been sacrificed on the altar of small government? I’m not quite sure, but one guess is that the Tea Party faction that kicked off the shutdown simply doesn’t care that much about foreign policy.

Ted Cruz, its de facto leader, doesn’t appear to have much of a coherent foreign policy worldview beyond “if Obama likes it, it sucks.” There’s always been a bit of a tension between small government libertarianism and the big budgets required for a hyper-muscular foreign policy. And domestic policy simply tends to animate legislators and voters more than foreign policy.


Whatever the cause, one thing is clear: hawks are no longer in driver’s seat in setting the Republican Party’s budget priorities — if they ever were.