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The debates proved that George W. Bush’s foreign policy is alive and well in the GOP

Ted Cruz spreads his wings.
Ted Cruz spreads his wings.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

You know who should have really enjoyed last night's Republican debates? George W. Bush.

Sure, the frontrunners — Bush's brother Jeb and Donald Trump — both said the Iraq War was a bad idea. But nobody really noticed. And for good reason: The foreign policy philosophy that drove the invasion, and, really most of George W. Bush's presidency, dominated the stages.

See Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Cowboy Diplomacy): "If you join ISIS, if you wage jihad on America, then you are signing your death warrant." See Lindsey Graham, answering a question about Planned Parenthood by saying we should "send soldiers back to Iraq, back to Syria, to keep us from being attacked here." See Scott Walker, promising to "terminate the [Iran] deal on day one." Hell, see Jeb Bush saying "we need to take out ISIS with every tool at our disposal" within breaths of calling the Iraq War "a mistake."

Republican hawkishness won the night, hands down — illustrating just how dominant their ideas are in today's GOP. The top Republicans competed to out-hawk each other. Rand Paul, the candidate expected to present some kind of alternative vision, was a non-factor. And hawks even got a boost from a top Democrat last night when Sen. Chuck Schumer came out against Obama's Iran deal.

All in all, it was a helluva night for neoconservatives.

Hawks soar

lindsey graham debate

Lindsey Graham. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Iran and ISIS were the big foreign policy topics of the night — and the consensus was basically total. The Iran deal was a disaster for the United States, and we need to hit ISIS much, much harder than we already are.

"We need a ground force in Iraq and Syria, and America has to be part of that ground force," Graham said. "I've got a very simple strategy as your president against [ISIS]. Whatever it takes, as long as it takes, to defeat them."

But the hawkfest went well beyond those issues. At least three candidates — Ben Carson, Chris Christie, and Mike Huckabee — called for military buildups. Scott Walker advocated "forces on the eastern border of Poland and the Baltic nations" and "weapons to Ukraine" to show Vladimir Putin that "we define steel." Bobby Jindal defined his approach to terrorism as total war: "You win a war by killing murderous, evil terrorists. We're going to take the political handcuffs off the military."

The unanimity is stunning. Just a year and a half ago, a majority of Republicans — 51 percent — said America does "too much" to try to solve global problems. A scant 13 percent said America did too little. It seemed like there was a chance for at least part of the Republican Party to change course on foreign policy and start embracing a more restrained foreign policy vision.

But there wasn't even a glimmer of that last night. Part of the reason is that Republican minds have changed: Since the outbreak of the ISIS crisis, Republican public opinion has tacked way back in the hawkish direction. Sixty percent of Republicans now favor sending American troops to fight ISIS — that is, back to Iraq.

To some degree, this is a triumph of the Republican foreign policy establishment. The party's donor, activist, and intellectual bases are still overwhelmingly hawkish. Those people play a huge role in primary elections, and presidential hopefuls have every reason to court them — as we saw last night.

But part of the issue is that the most significant Republican critic of neoconservatism seems to have lost interest in the fight.

Rand Paul was weak

Rand Paul (R) with Jeb Bush. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Rand Paul, a committed non-interventionist, was supposed to be the lone voice of dissent. He did have a pretty heated exchange with Chris Christie on NSA surveillance, and gave a mealy-mouthed answer on his (now-retracted) opposition to aid to Israel. But when given a golden opportunity to take on the party on the to foreign policy issues, Paul blinked.

Fox's Bret Baier, one of the hosts, asked him point-blank to defend his claims that "ISIS exists and grew stronger because of the hawks in our party," and that these hawks have "been wrong [about everything] for 20 years."

But Paul refused. Instead of defending his argument, he said, "Only ISIS is responsible for the terrorism." He then launched into a frankly incoherent answer about how he opposed "arming the allies of ISIS," as if anyone supported that, and appeared to get basic facts about the ISIS situation wrong.

Paul also reiterated his opposition to the Iran deal, saying he "will vote against it." This is odd coming from a self-styled non-interventionist. It's even odder given that as recently as October, Paul was calling for "an effective diplomatic solution for limiting the Iranian enrichment program."

Paul's campaign has big problems. His media attention, fundraising, and poll numbers are all dismal. And that debate exchange illustrates part of the issue: Paul, a non-interventionist, is trying to win the nomination of an increasingly hawkish party. In order to do so, he has moderated his foreign policy message — for instance, signaling a willingness to attack Iran. But that's failed to appeal to mainstream Republicans, who have plenty of more reliable hawks to choose from, and turned off his libertarian base.

Paul's weak answers on foreign policy, then, illustrate just how much his campaign is buckling in the face of the Republican mainstream.

How Chuck Schumer gave Republicans a huge win

Chuck Schumer Matt McClain/ The Washington Post via Getty Images

Chuck Schumer. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Hawks got one last piece of good news last night. Chuck Schumer, the most important Democrat in the Senate on the Iran deal, announced he'd vote against it.

This is huge. The most important force keeping Democrats in line on Iran is partisanship: They don't want to buck the president and their leadership on one of Obama's top issues. But Schumer is the presumed next leader of the Senate Democrats, and one of the leading pro-Israel voices in the party to boot. His opposition gives Democrats real cover to oppose the deal.

This is great for Republican hawks. An actual fight on the Iran deal will raise the issue's profile even more, giving the candidates even more reason to bash the administration and take a hawkish line on Iran. And the more we're talking about the Iran deal, the more cemented the hawkish consensus in the GOP will get.

Neoconservatives, then, should clap themselves on the back. They had a great night.