For my part in our brief interview with House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) today, I asked whether the era of the Republican hawk is over, or just on hiatus till after the next election. He had an interesting response.
"Conservative Republicans have a three legged stool: defense, fiscal responsibility and social issues. Right now the stool is a little out of balance because fiscal matters are dominating everything, because of the economic shape we're in," McKeon said. "And when the Chairman of Joint Chiefs comes and tells us our most important defense need is our economic stability, that gets a lot of people thinking that's all we should be talking about, to the point where some of them are saying 'Defense should be on the table, Defense should be cut.'"
This fits, of course, into larger concerns Republicans have about the increasing divide between the Washington foreign policy elite and the base of the party - not just the Tea Party, but other fiscal and social conservatives as well. While several Tea Party favorites maintain a generally hawkish stance on Afghanistan and other fronts, their attitude toward Libya has been frustration and disagreement from day one. A recent letter signed by a roster of former George W. Bush appointees and neoconservatives on the issue contains little in the way of anyone who seems to have a firm connection with the right's base. (A chat with an average member of the Tea Party does not typically reveal a high approval rating for William Kristol and Karl Rove, in case anyone was curious.)
When it came time to vote today, McKeon was with the majority of Republicans, but on the opposite side from 89 of his members who successfully blocked an attempt to approve limited funding for NATO/U.S. efforts in Libya. Included in opposition are several darlings of the Tea Party, such as Michele Bachmann, Allen West and several other freshmen.
The question is whether this divide between the neoconservative foreign policy elites and the more conventionally conservative voting base on the right will grow to affect other areas of national security policy as well, beyond just things branded as "Obama's war." Without respected and serious go-betweens who don't have prior bad blood with the base, it's hard to see how McKeon's stool will be rebalanced.