Just went to the 2nd Congressional District foreign affairs debate between Rep. Tammy Baldwin and Chad Lee, sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
Twas an interesting scene. Perhaps 100 strong were in attendance in the lecture hall in the Grainger School of Business at UW. Political Science Professor John Peevehouse moderated the debate, which took roughly an hour and a half, and covered a variety of foreign policy topics, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, foreign aid, international trade agreements and nuclear proliferation.
Baldwin, as expected, gave coherent and occasionally impassioned defenses of her foreign policy positions. That's nothing new. So I won't waste any time on that I got a playoff game to watch.
The most remarkable aspect of the debate was the murkiness of Lee's positions on the issues. After taking part of his opening statement to chastise Baldwin for not agreeing to a debate on domestic affairs, he asserted that much of U.S. foreign policy is based on the idea that "we are so smart that we can guide the world," a notion which he challenged. However, in the same statement he also remarked that if the U.S. hadn't intervened in Afghanistan, "women there would still be living in a medieval state of servitude." He then accused Baldwin of voting to send troops there but then not voting to fund their presence.
His "game plan" for Afghanistan was, if not naive, strikingly superficial in light of the 9 years of occupation the U.S. has already had. In addition to economic security for the war-ridden country, Lee suggested "we help them establish a government," as well as "establish an education system so they can educate their women," as if these ideas had never occurred to U.S. policy makers.
On trade, Lee also introduced the novel idea of "tariffs on Chinese products" to reduce the trade deficit. He then alluded to a Pew Center Study which showed there to be no consensus on whether free trade is harmful or beneficial to the economy. Like a high school social studies student doing a report, Lee listed the advantages and disadvantages of free trade, and then concluded that it's "a mixed bag," and that he would examine every piece of legislation on the issue carefully.
Lee's disinterest in striking the ideological chord on foreign policy that defined his party during the Bush years is indicative of broader trends in the GOP this year. Poising as the populists in the game, Republicans shy away from the assertive foreign policy that guided them to victory in 2002 and 2004.
As the opposition party, they are not running on tough-guy leadership, but on the voice of the people, of those who are disillusioned with the "elites." That leaves them in a dilemma when it comes to foreign policy. How can they be for limited government and support nation-building? How can they warn of impending Chinese rule and support trade policies upon which Chinese economic strength is built?