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A Progressive – Tea Party Foreign Policy Coalition? Don’t Hold Your Breath

Speculation about Tea Partiers cooperating with progressives on foreign policy is interesting but ultimately unconvincing.

Foreign Policy in Focus

For those of us who wearied of the “rejection of progressivism” storyline tailing the midterm election results before even the first votes were counted, a new and potentially more interesting sort of speculation has emerged as a welcome, if ultimately unconvincing, distraction.

Over at Foreign Policy, John Norris of the Center for American Progress has seized on the Tea Party’s opaque foreign policy messaging to assemble a speculative list of potential areas of foreign policy cooperation between progressives and Tea Partiers in the next Congress. Most interesting are his first two suggestions. 

On Afghanistan and Iraq: “Some Tea Partiers, such as Marco Rubio and Sarah Palin, favor aggressive international interventions along the lines of Dick Cheney, but the majority of them view foreign entanglements of any kind with skepticism.”

On cuts to defense spending: “The Tea Partiers say they are serious about balancing the budget and substantially cutting the deficit, a goal that is almost impossible to achieve without taking a hard look at the Pentagon. … The philosophy of the movement's leaders on defense spending runs a remarkable gamut—from Palin's preference for increased spending to Ron Paul's libertarian argument that sharp cuts are needed.”

Tea-Party Senate candidates like Rand Paul, Ken Buck, Joe Miller, and John Raese bandied about varying degrees of skepticism regarding the role of the United States as an interventionist power, but of these, only Paul was elected (not that this is a huge loss—Raese also called for a missile defense system consisting of “1,000 laser systems put in the sky”). Paul also bears the distinction of being among the very few Tea Party candidates to explicitly put military cuts on the table. Senator-elect Mike Lee of Utah has similarly called for an emphasis on “military targets” in Afghanistan, followed by a troop withdrawal “as soon as possible.” But while Paul and Lee may be worth watching on these issues, they can hardly monopolize the Tea Party’s foreign policy voice among its Senate inductees. Marco Rubio’s victory speech dripped with the trappings of American exceptionalism, and indeed his first action as Senator-elect has been to schedule a trip to Israel, perhaps echoing his earlier demand that the United States endorse Israeli policies “without equivocation or hesitation.” 

The foreign policy orientation of the few dozen Tea Partiers on the House side of the aisle, however, has received considerably less scrutiny. And while the Tea Party is certainly better represented in the House than in the Senate, it will confront a markedly different institutional context. Whether it was an attempt to co-opt the Tea Party or merely an effort to capitalize on its brand name, the inception of Michelle Bachmann’s Tea Party Caucus last July means that the institutionalization of the Tea Party in the House has begun before the first members have even arrived—and with the Caucus’ 44 well-financed and often high-placed members, the new arrivals may find a more crowded “Tea Party” venue than they might have before imagined. To my knowledge, the Caucus’ most notable (and perhaps only) foray into foreign policy has been to endorse a resolution calling for an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities (although, a side note: tolerance for Israeli militarism already enjoys a fine degree of bipartisan approval). 

Then there are the Tea Party voters themselves. According to a study by the Sam Adams Alliance, 69 percent of members identified “defense” as a “very important” national priority when they joined the Tea Party, while nearly 80 percent of members classify it so “today.” While the survey does not wander into the thornier territory of polling on actual policies, it seems clear that the projection of American power assumes a greater importance for Tea Partiers once they are inside the movement.

It must be admitted that measuring Tea Party sentiment has proven a daunting task for many pollsters and that even reasonably accurate measures of Tea Party sympathy for this or that policy would not translate to predicting the behavior of newly elected officials. But one can probably be safely skeptical of a groundswell in Tea Party sentiment for major American foreign policy changes.

Without any clear popular mandate on foreign policy and without any information about how new members will assimilate into their respective legislative caucuses—not to mention any real evidence yet of a convergence of Tea Party and progressive foreign policy priorities—thoughts of such cooperation must be treated as mere speculation. One can certainly imagine a Washington that is rather more eccentric but fundamentally unchanged in its foreign policy disposition. Whatever the case, at least Mr. Norris has not told us that progressivism is dead.

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