Will the Tea Party Help Obama Exit Afghanistan? Probably Not.

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Interesting tidbit from a HuffPo chat with Axelrod*:

A student of history and a onetime political reporter, Axelrod expressed curiosity and even some optimism about the tea party, suggesting that Obama could work with them on matters such as a ban on spending earmarks and on winding down the war in Afghanistan.

This comes at a moment when the administration is sending a signal quite different from “winding down” in Afghanistan. Although the White House still says troop withdrawals will begin in July of 2011, as Obama promised last December, the U.S. is now telegraphing a determination to remain in the country until at least 2014 (a message intended for Taliban leaders who may think they can simply wait us out and probably also a Pakistani government convinced we’re going to cut and run, leaving them to clean up behind us). Still, that doesn’t mean Obama won’t bring troop levels down substantially over the next couple of years.

But would the the Tea Partyers really be there to cheer him on? I know some smart Democrats who think the far right’s isolationist tendencies could give Obama cover for troop withdrawals. And a lot of political commentary has fueled that notion. But I’m not so sure.

When you consider the new Tea Party class of 2010 in Congress, it’s not easy to identify more than a small handful who have questioned the mission with any real bite. Yes, Rand Paul–who often anchors discussions about Tea Party foreign policy in a disproportionate way–appears to believe we’re bogged down in a fruitless nation-building exercise. But even he has hedged in a way that suggests fear of offending conservative, pro-military Kentuckyans. But that other–and probably more influential–Tea Party hero, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, has criticized Obama’s July 2011 withdrawal trigger as foolhardy. (DeMint even demanded that Michael Steele apologize for his off-message criticism of the war in July.)

Meanwhile a lot of Tea Partyers simply don’t have clearly formed views of foreign policy. Their campaigns were inspired and animated by the economy, the budget, and the bailouts. Generally speaking, Michael Bloomberg probably has a point about their worldliness. Thus, some of these new members will likely turn for tutelage to the usual suspects of the Republican foreign policy establishment, much as Christine O’Donnell did, and emerge towing a fairly hawkish line. And then there are a handful of military veterans new to Congress, like Florida’s Allen West, whose campaign website called the U.S. “a nation at war against a totalitarian theocratic political ideology,” adding that “[t]o defeat it, we must stay on the offensive.”

And then there are the polls. It’s certainly true that the war is broadly unpopular, and no member of Congress can fail to notice that. But most of that opposition comes from liberals especially, and also independents. As with the Iraq war during its darkest days, conservatives are still largely on board: A late September CNN poll found that about six in ten Republicans continue to back the fight in Afghanistan.

All of which leads me to think that Axelrod, and liberal critics of the Afghanistan war, may find themselves disappointed if they’re expecting the Tea Party to give them political cover for scaling back the war effort.

* See also Michael Scherer’s even more interesting talk with Axelrod from our new issue.

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