When Marco Rubio talks foreign policy, it's hard not to get a little misty. The guy so obviously believes what he says and what he says are such good, noble, red-blooded and freedom-loving things that they could have been lifted from a fireside chat with Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Which is a problem, of course. When Marco Rubio decided this week to pressure the White House to, as the Herald put it, "step it up" with regard to its support of Libyan rebels, one could hear the distant, doomed howls of an old generation of conservatives wondering where their comrades had gone. These were the realpolitik folks, the sober folks, the folks whose clearest voice in American politics died with William F. Buckley.
If you listened carefully, you could trace the most articulate and full-throated howls back to the paleoconservatives at The American Conservative, who've been disenfranchised forever, and to the columns of Daniel Larison in particular.
Reading Larison's blog, Eunomia, is a weird experience for devoted Rubio followers. In current pop conservatism, Rubio's a golden boy; the love he inspires among the vocal right is similar to (if a little less intense than) that inspired by Obama among the vocal left in 2005 or '06. At Eunomia, Rubio's name is mud. Larison quotes an interview with radio host Jennifer Rubin in which Rubio claimed "the world has to be so disappointed" that the Obama White House "has not been more forceful in speaking out on behalf of freedom and democracy" throughout the Middle East and in Syria and Bahrain in particular. Larison writes:
So Marco Rubio wants Obama to pay lip service to "freedom and democracy" throughout the region... [His] is a support for stronger American rhetoric in lieu of action... It is intended to distinguish Rubio and the others [for] speaking out forcefully, and it costs Rubio nothing.
Later, Larison goes after Rubio's dismissal of the fear that the fall of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, could lead to "something worse" than Assad's Ba'athist regime:
It's actually a very well-grounded fear, and the governments closest to Syria are the ones that share it. Again, this is easy for Rubio to say. If Assad falls, and something worse follows, virtually no one will remember that Rubio shrugged at that possibility and dismissed it as nonsensical. All that most people will remember is that he was in favor of "speaking out" against Assad. It won't matter that Rubio will have been shown to be blithely indifferent to unleashing regional instability and chaos. It isn't going to bother his fans that he was oblivious to the possible fault-lines in a country whose political future he so confidently wants to influence.
There are a ton of stories like this one over at American Conservative, with titles like "Rubio: Let's Make Syria Into Somalia" and "Rubio's Comically Outdated Foreign Policy," and "Rubio's Knee-Jerk Interventionist Isolationism on Syria," which accuses the senator of "reckless moral posturing." Granted, the paleocons have been saying this stuff forever, but it's hard not to believe that for maybe the first time, they're speaking for a pretty large slab of the American electorate. Are we really to believe that Joe the Plumber -- or, more to the point, Joe's parents -- are losing sleep over the lack of a more forceful American engagement with the Arab Spring?
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Conservatism, in the traditional American sense of the word, is slow, cautious, skeptical of idealism and bombast, and for decades it survived as a movement because those qualities are natural and human. They are also qualities possessed in lesser quantities by Tea Party superstars such as Marco Rubio than by the POTUS they loathe. Reading Larison on Rubio makes me wonder if we've arrived at a genuinely weird moment in American political history in which ordinary conservatives -- that fabled great, silent majority -- have more in common with both a Democratic president and with paleocons than they do with their movement's own rock stars. If so, people are bound to notice eventually.