Rand Paul and his libertarian supporters like to think they have a shot at reorienting the Republican Party away from its post-9/11, Bush-era fixation on militarism, its embrace of reckless fiscal indiscipline, and its indifference toward civil liberties. If the result of the Arkansas Senate race is any indication — a contest in which one-term Congressman Tom Cotton defeated Democrat Mark Pryor — those hopes are badly misplaced.
The GOP is and remains the party of George W. Bush and his neoconservative brain trust.
Cotton's victory shows, first and foremost, that the Rand Paul, war-skeptic wing of the party remains a small, marginalized faction in the GOP. When it comes right down to it, Republicans still swoon over blustering bellicosity, no matter how asinine it is. Mr. Harvard — the man Politico dubbed "the last, best hope of the GOP hawks" — actually warned ominously on the campaign trail that ISIS might collaborate with Mexican drug cartels and infiltrate the U.S. by crossing its southern border. And the good people of Arkansas didn't laugh him right off the stage.
This is what the Republicans have been reduced to. Reflexively committed to demonstrating their superior toughness at every turn, the GOP and its undead neocon pseudo-intellectuals have been driven by Barack Obama to stake out increasingly ludicrous positions. This is a president, after all, who has killed Osama bin Laden, eagerly embraced drone strikes, kept Guantanamo open for business, thrown temper tantrums over national security leaks, bombed Libya and toppled Gaddafi, and signed up the United States for an open-ended battle against ISIS. No wonder Cotton (R-Weekly Standard) felt the need to come up with more creative military targets.
Then there's the rhetoric of fiscal conservatism that animates the Republican Party whenever it lacks the power to enact a governing agenda. After running record deficits under Bush, Republicans were transformed into paragons of budgetary restraint the moment Obama won the White House. Rand Paul has tried to keep that impulse alive as he prepares his own run for the presidency. Yet here comes Cotton with his hyper-aggressive foreign-policy agenda, showing just how easily the calls for frugality can be drowned out by the drums of war. As libertarian-conservative Conor Friedersdorf put in a tweet written shortly after Cotton was declared the winner in Arkansas, "Understand this, Republicans: Every hawk you elect is a vote against fiscal conservatism. There's nothing pricier than war." Precisely.
And finally, we come to the fate of civil liberties, which Paul personally championed in his famous 2013 filibuster. Cotton's victory is just the latest sign that the issue isn't going anywhere in the contemporary Republican Party, which loses interest in talking about liberty the moment the conversation goes beyond tax cuts on the super-rich. Recall that Cotton called in 2006 for Bill Keller, then-executive editor of The New York Times, to be jailed for espionage because the paper ran a story about a secret Bush administration program to monitor and track terrorist funds. Apparently Cotton believes the First Amendment is a luxury that a nation in a state of perpetual war can ill afford.
As always, I wish the best of luck to those toiling to reform the Republican Party.
Judging from Tuesday night's results, they're going to need every bit of it.