The result is that alarms are sounding in the neocon camp. In January Peter Wehner said about Trump in the New York Times , “His nomination would pose a profound threat to the Republican Party and conservatism, in ways that Hillary Clinton never could.” David Brooks wrote in the New York Times , “very few presidents are so terrible that they genuinely endanger their own nation, but Trump and Cruz would go there and beyond.” Brooks ended with a call for the GOP to reject radicalism and embrace an emollient Reformicon agenda of wage subsidies and child tax credits.
In 2003, writing in the Weekly Standard , Irving Kristol explained that the neocons sought to perform a tutelary role:
"the historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy."
What Kristol meant by this, he said, was a cheerful conservatism that constructed a new pantheon of heroes, one that embraced Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. “Such Republican and conservative worthies as Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and Barry Goldwater,” he said, “are politely overlooked.” Politesse aside, Kristol’s comment contained an element of bravado. The shades of Coolidge and Goldwater are in fact regularly invoked by insurgent conservatives who want the GOP to return to the small-government precepts that were flouted by the George W. Bush administration. But it’s also the case that the party establishment has essentially outsourced foreign policy to the neocons. So the question facing the neocons is this: did they reach their high-water mark during the Bush administration, or will their embrace of Rubio allow them to stage a comeback that vouchsafes these warrior intellectuals even greater influence and power than in the past?
For now, the battle lines seem clear. In the February Commentary, Max Boot, the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, warned that Trump and Cruz have
"turned their backs on decades of Republican foreign policy, which has been internationalist, pro–free trade, pro-immigration, pro-democracy, and pro–human rights. Instead, they have embraced a Jacksonian weltanschauung that in the past has been championed by the likes of Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, George Wallace, and Jesse Ventura."
He has a point. In November 2015, Cruz told Bloomberg Politics that the 2011 war in Libya was a blunder:
"Qaddafi was a bad man, he had a horrible human rights record. And yet . . . he had become a significant ally in fighting radical Islamic terrorism."
Cruz also heckled what he called
"some of the more aggressive Washington neocons [who] have consistently mis-perceived the threat of radical Islamic terrorism and have advocated military adventurism that has had the effect of benefitting radical Islamic terrorists."
Whether the GOP will actually nominate Trump or Cruz is an open question. But the rift that they have opened up within the conservative movement over the true faith is not going away any time soon. Saint or surplice, anyone?
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest .
Image: Flickr/Michael Vadon.