Politics Explained: Rand Paul Signals a Coalition Shift

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Senator Rand Paul’s (R-KY) 13 hour filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to head  the CIA attracted widespread attention across the Internet and in Washington, D.C. Paul’s message began as a non-partisan effort he did not expect to win, with Paul urging Attorney General Eric Holder to admit whether or not drone strikes could be conducted on American citizens inside the US. Although several Republican senators helped Paul out over those 13 hours in order to take potshots at President Obama, Paul was also praised by Democrat senators like Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Ron Wyden (D-OR). Additionally, he was strongly criticized by Republican senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John McCain (R-AZ), who called Paul a “wacko bird” for his anti-drone position.

This break with the usual partisanship has key ramifications for the short term future of the two party system in American politics. I believe that the issues of drone strikes, military spending, and the PATRIOT Act can create a realignment across parties and break the über-partisan nature of politics since President Obama’s election.

This divide appears to be a strange one given such heavy partisanship, but it points to an overlooked element of libertarian, Tea Party-backed conservatives: their isolationist foreign policy. At the center of the New Right coalition formed under Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 is a government characterized by strong defense spending and toughness on crime. Republicans were trusted on issues of defense through the end of the Cold War, and this advantage helped them win presidential elections and shift the Democratic Party to the right in the 1990s.

However, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Bush squandered that advantage. Bush’s presidency marked the height of establishment “neoconservatism,” as Bush led America into two wars and proposed the PATRIOT Act, which marked a significant restriction on individual liberties and the private sphere in order to combat terrorism.

The rise of the Tea Party in 2010 led to a split on foreign policy within the Republican Party, but that schism went overlooked in the 112th Congress due to the primacy of domestic policy issues. On spending and taxation issues, the Tea Party wing pushed the Republican establishment further to the right. However, on foreign policy, many in the libertarian wing resent the Bush-era policies that led to the wars and the PATRIOT Act.

This conflict rose to public attention with Paul’s filibuster and the criticism it received from high-profile neocon Republicans. The question now is whether Republicans like Paul, Mike Lee (R-UT) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) can align with dovish Democrats like Merkley and Mark Udall (D-CO) to create a libertarian coalition on these issues.

There is a significant group of House Republicans, including Justin Amash (MI-3) and Thomas Massie (KY-4), who have broken with Republican leadership based on what they interpret as the insufficient conservatism of Speaker Boehner. For example, 16 Republicans voted against the passage of the recent appropriations bill for defense spending as part of their opposition to more federal spending.

In both the Senate and the House, however, distinct civil-liberties and limited defense coalitions represent a minority. Moderate Democrats from states with major defense spending like Mark Warner (D-VA) or Harry Reid (D-NV) are not likely to support such a coalition, and neoconservatives like McCain and Graham strongly oppose military retrenchment and isolationist foreign policy.

Regardless of whether Congress should pursue a more isolationist or more interventionist foreign policy, the fact that these issues are breaking up the partisanship of the past few years is certainly a good thing. One of the biggest problems with our two-party system is that it leaves little room for those who don’t agree with the vast array of positions each party holds. Thus, a two-party representative democracy works best when representatives can break with their party and form coalitions with members of the other party on certain issues.

This split is so significant that I would argue the last time such a prominent divide occurred was in the 1960s, when Southern Democrats opposed civil rights laws while northern liberal Republicans supported such laws. In general, Republicans and Democrats were more unified with their respective parties on Great Society legislation.

Perhaps even more splits can occur again today on other issues. Conservative Republicans Ron Johnson (R-WI) and David Vitter (R-LA) have agreed with liberal Democrats Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) that the banking crisis of 2008 and ensuing bailout hurt too many working class families while helping big banks, and are considering legislation to potentially break up bigger banks to ensure that individuals are protected.

In such a large democracy, it is inevitable that people will share different views. However, the purpose of a democracy is to find common ground on issues that a majority agrees upon so that the people’s wishes can ultimately be enacted. Political parties can help to align and unite people with similar views, and oftentimes, they do exactly that. But rigid party identification and the nature of a two-party system threaten the purity of democracy. It appears now that after a period of unprecedented partisanship in the 112th Congress, there is the potential for the ideological Tea Party wing of the Republican party to align with dovish Democrats to weaken the ties of party membership in order to serve the wishes of the majority of Americans more effectively once again.


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