The Realist Prism: After Midterms, Finding Elusive Common Ground

In the aftermath of Tuesday's midterm elections, President Barack Obama again sounded the theme of bipartisan cooperation, speaking of the need to find "common ground" and calling on both Democrats and Republicans to unite around solving the country's pressing challenges. In theory, bipartisanship is a golden rule when it comes to foreign policy, where politics is supposed to stop at the water's edge. That notion was first articulated by a Republican, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, who at the outset of the Cold War, under the administration of Democratic President Harry Truman, argued that America's position in the world would be weakened if partisan bickering gave the impression that Washington could not or would not speak with one voice on the vital issues of the day.

But how likely is it that Washington will now find the common ground that Obama spoke of in matters of foreign policy?

In answering that question, a good starting point is to evaluate the main trends in the Republican party when it comes to the question of what role the United States ought to play in the world. In "Hard Line," a masterful account of the evolution of Republican foreign policy over the last 70 years, Colin Dueck identifies several historical factions within the Republican party: the isolationists, who are heirs to Sen. Robert Taft; the realists, who continue the approach best-identified with the presidency of Richard Nixon; and the hawks and nationalists, who acquired greater prominence in the Reagan years and were best-represented in the administration of George W. Bush.

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