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Tea Party, Vocal on Domestic Issues, Lacks Foreign Policy Platform



Since mid-May, a grinning Glenn Beck has popped up to greet visitors to the FreedomWorks website. Standing in front of his trademark chalkboard, the conservative host is the official face of FreedomWorks’ newest free offering: the “Take America Back! Action Kit.”

[GOP1] Together with a souvenir Gadsden Flag, the Tea Party starter-kit includes an informational DVD explaining the proper “pro-freedom” positions across the wide range of issues on which FreedomWorks is active. This menu of burning concerns, also found on freedomworks.org’s “Issues” page, includes primers on School Choice, Red Tape and Regulation, and even Asbestos Lawsuit Reform. While largely focused with domestic issues, the list also includes subjects of broader scope, such as International Trade and Global Warming.

There is, however, a striking omission in FreedomWorks’ otherwise expansive public agenda: It says nothing about national security or foreign policy. FreedomWorks, the organization most often credited with organizing the revival of an activist conservative grassroots, studiously avoids mention of the country’s two wars, its ballooning defense budget, arms control or the tangle of legal controversy that has outlived the previous administration’s “war on terror”—from Guantanamo to torture.

There is a simple explanation for why FreedomWorks fails to offer a bold new foreign policy agenda alongside its ambitious domestic one. The Tea Party movement for which it claims to speak, despite its sweeping rhetoric of renewal and reclamation, does not appear to have one. Where the Tea Party legions and its spokesmen raucously decry profligacy in domestic spending, they fall silent on the defense budget’s role in fueling deficits in recent years. While the highest-profile Tea Party-approved candidates and politicians agitate for radical redirection on social spending, taxes and the deficit, this boldness stops abruptly at water’s edge.

“My understanding from talking to Tea Party leaders who contact us regularly is that the overriding concerns at this time focus on spending, mounting debt and expanding role of government,” said Bridgett Wagner, Director of Coalition Relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that advocates for a strong defense and an internationalist foreign policy. “The [Tea Party activists] are definitely patriotic and concerned about security and foreign policy issues, but these are not top-tier issues for them at this time.”

To the extent that the diffuse Tea Party movement has a foreign policy vision, there is little to distinguish it from the mainstream Republicanism of the last decade it claims so heartily to disdain.

The campaign platform of Pat Toomey, a Republican Senate candidate in Pennsylvania backed by local Tea Partiers, offers the homiletic belief that America “must have the strongest defensive capabilities in the world.” Without mentioning Iraq or Afghanistan, it goes on to state, “We should not hesitate to take action in defense of our freedom and our American way of life.”

That’s more than interested voters will find in the public platform of Tea Party darling and Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio, which lacks even a perfunctory section on foreign policy or national security.

“There’s no question that the most pressing issues right now are domestic,” said Alex Burgos, a Rubio spokesman. “We’re talking to an electorate with a 12 percent unemployment rate, so the most dominant topics are going to be jobs, debt and the deficit.” Burgos noted that this does not mean that Rubio does not take foreign policy seriously. “Marco has spoken out on the issues,” added Burgos. “He supported the surge in Afghanistan, opposed canceling missile defense installations in Eastern Europe and supports Israel, as well as tough action against Iran.”

The foreign policy platform of Kentucky senatorial candidate Rand Paul likewise reflects the conventional wisdom of strong-defense conservatism, and fails to approach the radicalism of his domestic policy suggestions. In Arizona, Tea Party-supported Senate hopeful J.D. Hayworth offers a hawkish foreign policy line that could have been written by Dick Cheney. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Glenn Beck’s favorite senator, is yet another new-breed conservative who argues for breaking with the recent Republican past on domestic and economic issues, but on foreign policy sounds like any Bush-boosting Republican senator circa 2005.

When Tea Party heroes do wade into foreign policy issues, they do so at risk of exposing rifts within the ranks. After Sarah Palin began giving speeches under the Tea Party banner that smacked of Cheneyism, many of the Tea Party old guard felt betrayed. The Tea Party activist-theorist A.C. Kleinheider, who had joined the nascent movement as it first began coalescing in the Ron Paul campaign, was just one of those to resign from the movement in disgust.

“The tea party movement is dead, and Sarah Palin drove a stake right through its heart,” Kleinheider wrote following Palin’s keynote to the National Tea Party convention. “The tea party I’m familiar with was concerned more about the collusion of big business and big government than the War in Iraq. The tea party I’m familiar with was more concerned about rejecting the bailout of Wall Street while looking for ways reinvigorate the economy of Main Street than looking for Al-Qaeda. The tea party I’m familiar with seemed more concerned about restoring the Republic at home than Democracy abroad.”

No wonder, then, that groups like FreedomWorks prefer to avoid the subject altogether.

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