Back in November, before the GOP debate here at Wofford, I noted that one of the interesting things to look for in the debate, whose ostensible topic was foreign policy, was how large a role the historical internationalist v. isolationist split in the GOP would play: "I’ll be looking for signs that this old debate within the Republican party may be re-emerging in the 21st century."
Last night, I could not help but note that the primary in New Hampshire produced a 40% vote for two candidates who explicitly call for the US to get out of Afghanistan: Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman. Granted, Mitt Romney, who called for "overwhelming military superiority," won the primary with 38%, and if one adds in the 20% that went to the combination of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, that means that about 60% of voters went for candidates whose foreign policy is much more aggressive and interventionist.
It is also worth noting that voters don't generally vote on foreign policy, and this year that is probably more true than it usually is. So one can't take that 40% as a necessarily isolationist vote.
Nonetheless, it does seem fair to say this: for that 40% of New Hampshire Republican primary voters, the foreign policy views of Paul and Huntsman were not disqualifying. That is significant.
It is practically impossible to imagine that just four years ago. Then, there was only one candidate calling for such a foreign policy: Ron Paul. And he got only 7.7% of the vote in 2008. He tripled that last night. Something interesting is happening among Republican voters.
Several observers have noted the absence in this campaign of references to the last Republican president, George W. Bush. For some, that's due to the perception that he was a "big government" conservative who let spending get out of hand. But it may also be that some Republicans are recoiling from the aggressive, regime-change, nation-building foreign policy that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld pursued.
Listening to the jingoism of Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum (especially on the topic of Iran), it is clear that the animating spirit of the Bush foreign policy is far from dead. It is also not going unchallenged.
Those two things combined add up to a meaningful split in the foreign policy consensus in the Republican Party. That makes it all the more interesting that Romney's victory speech in New Hampshire focused as much as it did on foreign policy.
He accused Obama of an "appeasement strategy" and said the president "doesn't see the need for overwhelming military superiority." If Obama is an "appeaser," then what do we call Paul and Huntsman and their supporters? Clearly, Romney is not interested in appealing to the Paul and Huntsman voters on foreign policy.
Certainly, no virulently anti-Obama voter is going to vote against Romney in the general election on foreign policy grounds. But those who find appealing the "bring 'em home" sentiment expressed by Paul and Huntsman will have no place call their own in a Republican Party led by Romney. In the long run, that could spell trouble for party unity.