Where Are the Reality-Based Candidates?

Surveying the 2012 Republican presidential field

Editor’s Note: This column is reprinted with permission of the Washington Examiner. Click here to read it at that site.

Frantic updates on the debt-limit squabble bringing you down? Let’s focus on something less immediate, but perhaps equally depressing: the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

Alas, so far, the GOP field resembles a “Hollywood-for-the-ugly” version of the mid-2000s VH1 reality show The Surreal Life, which brought together “a select group of past-their-prime celebrities,” like Corey Feldman and Vanilla Ice, and made them jockey for attention.

Original slogan: “When the stars fall from sight … this is where they crash.” (Just this week, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich insisted he was a serious contender because he had way more Twitter followers than his rivals.)

Still, this motley crew may be able to tell us something about the future of American foreign policy, Eli Lake argues in the latest New Republic.

“The GOP foreign policy debate has changed profoundly since the last campaign,” Lake writes, with the neoconservatives losing ground. If, like me, you’d like to see less empire and more republic in contemporary Republicanism, you’ll consider that good news.

True, where Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) was “a cantankerous exception” to the 2008 field’s embrace of military crusades for liberty abroad, this time around he’s been joined by former Govs. Gary Johnson of New Mexico and John Huntsman of Utah.

I’m not convinced that neoconservatism has lost its enduring hold on the Republican mind, however.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R.-Minn.) may be less enthusiastic than the neocons about the Arab Spring and more worried about what she calls “a stealth jihad” within the United States. But that doesn’t translate into huge differences on military policy.

Meanwhile, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s inner circle includes prominent neoconservatives like Dan Senor, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty invokes the “isolationist” canard whenever anyone wonders what we’re doing in Libya.

As Foreign Policy‘s Josh Rogin puts it, we’re left with three leading candidates “who are all advocating increased military spending, an enduring presence in Afghanistan, and a more assertive U.S. role in the world.”

Lake sees potential contender Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) as a guy with “a business-first approach to foreign affairs” that “could in its own way represent a new challenge to the neocon establishment.”

That’s highly doubtful: National Review recently revealed that Perry had turned to former undersecretary of defense Douglas Feith for national security advice. In the Bush administration, Feith helped push the Iraq War with bogus intelligence on a supposed Saddam Hussein-Osama bin Laden alliance.

It was a bit unfair for Gen. Tommy Franks to call Feith “the dumbest [expletive deleted] guy on the planet,” given Earth’s 6 billion-plus people, but Feith’s hardly the first person you’d want to turn to if you wanted to avoid the costly foreign policy blunders of the past decade.

On Sunday, Romney announced his opposition to the debt-limit deal, in part because it “puts defense cuts on the table.” But how could any serious fiscal conservative leave the military budget off the table?

It’s the largest portion of discretionary spending, and as the 1990s showed, it’s politically possible to make significant reductions while still retaining a military second to none.

Irving Kristol once described neoconservatives as liberals who’d been “mugged by reality.” At the height of their political influence, they had a different orientation toward the basic facts of existence.

As a senior adviser to President George W. Bush famously told journalist Ron Suskind in 2004: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

It’s 2011 now, and the empire is broke. Neoconservatives may resist that reality, but the rest of us, Republicans, Democrats and independents alike, will have to come to terms with it.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power (Cato 2008). He is a columnist at the Washington Examiner, where this article originally appeared. Click here to read it at that site.