Many of the Washington state Republicans challenging incumbents in U.S. Senate and House races are decidedly less aggressive on foreign policy than their predecessors — and sometimes their Democratic opponents.
Michael Baumgartner wants the United States to get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. Ron Bemis proposes cutting the defense budget. Bill Driscoll strongly supports President Obama’s strategy for dealing with Iran. And Dan Matthews thinks we should consider winding down our military presence in Japan, Germany and Korea.
Believe it or not, these are members of Washington state’s Republican candidate class of 2012.
Several underdog Republicans competing in U.S. Senate and House races are decidedly less hawkish on military issues than their predecessors — and, sometimes, their Democratic opponents.
In some races, such as Baumgartner’s challenge of Sen. Maria Cantwell, voters are treated to the counterintuitive scenario of a Republican hammering the Democrat for her support of a war, while the Democrat accuses the Republican of not supporting the troops. That’s a reversal of the attacks when George W. Bush was president.
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The unusual positions are unlikely to significantly affect a Nov. 6 election more focused on the economy. But some political insiders say they could be indicative of the party’s future.
“The neoconservatives had a monopoly on the discourse throughout the Bush administration,” said Sandeep Kaushik, a Democratic consultant, referring to the GOP wing that supports intervention to spread democracy. “I think what you’re seeing is a comeback of the kind of realist view.”
Others dismiss the candidates’ positions as temporary and politically motivated.
“When Bush was president, Republicans supported the war in Afghanistan,” former state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance wrote in a one-line email. “Now that Obama is president, they oppose it.”
The dynamic is playing out most prominently in the Senate race, where Spokane state Sen. Baumgartner has made Afghanistan a central issue. He just launched a TV ad criticizing Cantwell for voting for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But similar themes play in the 2nd and 7th congressional districts, where pilot Matthews and attorney Bemis are challenging U.S. Reps. Rick Larsen of Everett and Jim McDermott of Seattle, respectively, and in the 6th, where businessman Driscoll is facing state Sen. Derek Kilmer.
In the 1st District contest between Snohomish County Councilman John Koster and former Microsoft executive Suzan DelBene, the candidates adopted more traditional positions.
In the 9th District, Republican Jim Postma, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Adam Smith of Bellevue, has not said much about his views on foreign policy.
“Time to leave”
Most of the four Republicans with the unusual foreign-policy views have something else in common: experience abroad
Driscoll did Marine combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Matthews was in the Air Force for 22 years, flying in Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm. Baumgartner was a diplomat and a counternarcotics adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan.
All four said they think the U.S. military has been in Afghanistan too long and should pull out quickly — by Obama’s stated withdrawal date of 2014, or sooner.
“Our interests there expired long ago,” Driscoll said. “It’s time to leave.”
That puts them at odds with some elements of their party, although Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has changed his mind and now mostly supports Obama’s timeline.
The unusual Washington state Republicans said the U.S. military should go into other countries only in self-defense or if it’s clearly in America’s national interest. Even then, they said, the engagement should be well planned, funded and brief.
“I don’t think that we should be nation-building by any stretch of the imagination. That’s dangerous territory,” said Matthews, instead touting tactical missions targeted at terrorists.
In situations such as Syria, where rebels are trying to rise up against dictator Bashar al-Assad, the candidates said the U.S. should be cautious and get involved only with the support of the rest of the world.
Again, that’s different from how many Republicans think, including Romney.
The local Republicans said the U.S. must cut its military spending as part of its efforts to reduce the national debt. Baumgartner has proposed a one-penny-per-gallon gas tax to fund veterans’ health care.
Romney wants to increase military spending without raising tax rates.
The most significant area of disagreement among the Washington state candidates involves Iran.
Like many conservative Republicans, Bemis believes the economic sanctions Obama imposed are not working and that Israel will soon take military action to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon. When that happens, he said, the U.S. should help.
But the others supported Obama’s approach — not taking a military strike off the table, but focusing more on diplomacy. Baumgartner even suggested the U.S. shouldn’t consider military action.
“The one thing worse than Iran having nuclear weapons is a poorly planned war to try to prevent that,” he said.
Not major issue
In the House races, those views don’t greatly differ from those of the Republicans’ opponents. McDermott, in particular, is known as an anti-war politician who voted against going into Iraq, and Larsen and Kilmer sound almost identical to their opponents Matthews and Driscoll on foreign policy.
And Baumgartner acknowledges he hasn’t yet gotten much traction.
In general, foreign policy is not considered a major issue this year.
“As much as voters might be fed up with the wars, the economy is dominating everything,” said Todd Donovan, a political-science professor at Western Washington University. “No one seems to notice we’re still in Afghanistan.”
And many political insiders are skeptical that the GOP candidate trend will be meaningful in the future.\
Kirby Wilbur, chairman of the Washington State Republican Party, speculated that the change in attitude is a temporary blip, caused by frustration with Afghanistan and a focus on bringing down the debt.
Former U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Spokane, said it is probably just a case of politicians trying to score political points.
“I think they’re (the anti-war Republicans) probably trying to show they’re independent from the party, especially with a public that’s tired of war,” said Nethercutt, who was defeated when he sought a U.S. Senate seat in 2004. “Sometimes that works, but usually it doesn’t.”
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or email@example.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.