It looks like the debate over what to do about ISIS has given Republicans one fewer thing to argue about:
A roiling national debate over how to deal with the radical Islamic State and other global hot spots has prompted a sudden shift in Republican politics, putting a halt to the anti-interventionist mood that had been gaining credence in the party.
The change is evident on the campaign trail ahead of the November midterm elections and in recent appearances by the GOP’s prospective 2016 presidential candidates, with a near-universal embrace of stronger military actions against the group that has beheaded two American journalists.
A hawkish tone has become integral to several key Republican Senate campaigns, with a group of candidates running in battleground states calling attention to their ties to veterans and their support for the U.S. military at every turn.
The most notable shift has come from Rand Paul, who used to talk a lot about the dangers of interventionism and foreign entanglements, but is now ready for war. "If I were president," he told the AP, "I would call a joint session of Congress. I would lay out the reasoning of why ISIS is a threat to our national security and seek congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily."
This follows on a recent Pew Research poll which found that while last November only 18 percent of Republicans said the U.S. does too little to solve the world's problems and 52 percent said we do too much, today 46 percent say we're doing too little and only 37 percent say we're doing too much.
It's possible that all those Republicans have changed their perspective because circumstances have changed. ISIS in particular certainly looks much stronger and more threatening than it did a few months ago. But it's hard to avoid the conclusion that what has changed is Barack Obama. Once the old conservative narrative that he's a weak weakling endangering us with his weakness reasserted itself, most of those alleged quasi-isolationists, including the one who wants to be president, scuttled back to the fold.
This highlights a simple fact about today's Republicans: After six years of the Obama presidency, they define themselves almost entirely by being the opposite of whatever the guy in the White House is. I guarantee you that if Barack Obama did exactly what Rand Paul seems to be recommending—a full-scale war against ISIS—he and millions of other Republicans would change their tune in short order, now claiming that he was pulling us into another quagmire, and America can't solve all the world's problems. And they'd be completely sincere.
This is an extension of the way Republicans have been thinking throughout his presidency. As we know, whenever Obama has embraced one of their ideas, like the cap-and-trade carbon-reduction plan, or the conservative health-care plan that became the basis of the Affordable Care Act, they immediately decide that not only is it the soul of evil, but that they've always believed that, like the Party in "1984" declaring that we have always been at war with Eastasia.
To a degree, that's natural. When the other side's guy is president for two terms, he shapes the whole debate and even how you wind up thinking of yourself. But Republicans have been unusually reactive, I think in part because their abhorrence of Obama is so intense. He could say that he enjoys ice cream, and a million conservatives would swear never to let the vile frozen sludge pass their lips again.
Of course, there's a core of conservatism that is unchanging, no matter who the president is—taxes and regulations are bad, the rich are noble job creators, the safety net is for leeches, and so on. But on all those other issues that don't necessarily occupy their ideological core, it does make you wonder if they'll be able to figure out who they are once Obama is gone come 2017. I guess then they'll define themselves as against whatever President Clinton is for.