Tea Party-Backed Candidates Diverge on Foreign Policy

Tea Party-Backed Candidates Diverge on Foreign Policy

By Scott Conroy - October 21, 2010

LAS VEGAS - In the Nevada Senate debate here last week, Republican Sharron Angle had an opportunity to expound on her views on the initial decision to invade Iraq after her Democratic opponent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, responded to a question about his infamous 2007 comment that the Iraq war was "lost."

But instead of seizing the opportunity to clarify her views, Angle essentially punted. "Well, I don't have the access to special security briefings like the senator does, and I didn't get to vote for either one of those wars like the senator did," she said before transitioning into a generic statement of support for the military and veterans.

Angle's reluctance to delve into whether she originally supported the Iraq war may not be surprising in an election year when the economy and other domestic issues have dominated the national debate. But her coyness about laying out a potentially controversial foreign policy has been a trait shared by other tea party-backed Senate nominees, whose staunch advocacy for small government and economic restraint in the domestic sphere has not necessarily extended into the realm of international affairs.

Though she has spoken little about her foreign policy views since gaining the GOP nomination, there are hints that Angle may be more philosophically aligned with the Bush/Cheney brand of neoconservatism than she is with the noninterventionist, classically conservative tradition.

Before becoming the GOP Senate nominee in June, Angle's campaign web site declared the war on terror to be "the central challenge of our time" and used language that harkened the views of prominent neoconservatives from the Bush administration.

"When the U.S. engages diplomatically with its allies, the U.S. must always promote freedom around the world," Angle noted on her web site.

In Florida, Republican Senate nominee Marco Rubio-who was among the first tea party-backed stars-has sounded similarly interventionist notes.

After President Obama's announcement that he would send additional troops to Afghanistan at the end of last year, Rubio released a statement that praised the decision but expressed concern that the troop increase was not robust enough. Rubio even took the relatively rare step of praising President Bush after Obama's speech on the end of combat operations in Iraq in August, noting that the American commitment to that country "helped democracy take root there."

"We should also acknowledge President Bush and members of Congress from both parties who did what was right in 2007 by supporting the troop surge that has made Iraq a safer and more stable nation," Rubio said.

But several other tea party-backed Senate nominees have struck a far different tone in the few instances when foreign policy has come up on the campaign trail this year.

In Kentucky, Republican Senate nominee Rand Paul has spoken little about foreign policy, rather than making it a central tenet of his candidacy in the way that his father, Ron Paul, did during his presidential run in 2008. Still, Rand Paul's skepticism regarding nation-building was enough to encourage prominent interventionists Dick Cheney and Rudy Giuliani to endorse his opponent in the Kentucky GOP primary.

On his campaign web site, Paul calls the lack of effective border security "our greatest national security threat" and says that defending the country is the "primary and most important Constitutional function of our federal government."

Though he is not always defined as a "tea party candidate" in the way that Angle, Rubio, and Paul typically are, West Virginia Republican Senate nominee John Raese told RealClearPolitics last month that he often jokes that tea partiers are "a little bit to the left of me."

Raese is a strong advocate for missile defense and for easing the rules of engagement for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but when it comes to his broader philosophy, he is decidedly noninterventionist.

"If you study Great Britain, which was one of the greatest countries in the world for a long time, they lost most of their monetary-most of their superpower-because they kept chasing things throughout the world," Raese said. "I'm more of a Ronald Reagan Republican than I am a Bush Republican to be up front with you. I think we have to take care of our nation, and we have to make our nation strong, and you build that nation from within."

Colorado Republican Senate Nominee Ken Buck has suggested a similar skepticism regarding the belief that the U.S. can effectively spread democracy throughout the world.

"We can't nation build in Afghanistan, the way we did with the Marshall Plan in Germany," Buck said in a debate last week. "It's a fundamental mistake to assume that a people as backward as the Afghans are going to be able to build the industrialized nation and the democracy that it takes to be able to achieve what we would consider a Western-style democracy. And we have to be realistic about our goals. I think we have been there far too long. I think we have to give our troops an exit strategy, and get out of there when we can."

Alaska GOP nominee Joe Miller is the rare case of a tea party-fueled Senate nominee who has been upfront about his initial support of the Iraq war, which he affirmed in an interview with RealClearPolitics last month. But when asked about his overall foreign policy perspective, he sounded nothing like a neoconservative.

"What I don't want to see our country get dragged down with is feel-good foreign policy," Miller said. "The purpose of our engagement isn't to grow democracy across the world. The purpose of our engagement is to root out the things that threaten our national interests, and that has got to be our laser focus. It can't be sidelined by unwinnable objectives or things that really don't fall within our national interests, and so I think that's going to require perhaps a refocus."

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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