In an interview Wednesday, GOP presidential candidate Rand Paul blamed the rise of ISIS on "the hawks in our party" who pushed for American intervention and arms shipments to the region. "They created these people," Paul said. "Everything that they’ve talked about in foreign policy, they’ve been wrong about for 20 years, and yet they have somehow the gall to keep saying and pointing fingers otherwise.”
That accusation did not go over well, at least not in establishment Republican circles. Former Bush press secretary Dana Perino delivered the verdict succinctly on Fox News, saying that the remark shows that Paul is "completely out of touch with Republican voters."
That's probably true. However, it's also part of an intriguing trend going into the 2016 primary season in which at least some GOP hopefuls have dared to challenge party dogma in a party that treats dogma very seriously.
“My choice in that decision was to ignore some of the most vulnerable people in our population," the likely presidential candidate told his fellow Republicans. "I’ve been criticized for this decision. Do you think it bothers me? It doesn’t.”
Then there's Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of those GOP hawks whom Paul lambasted, and justifiably so, for pushing an interventionist foreign policy that has made the world more dangerous. Graham too is willing to commit heresy, in his case on the topics of manmade climate change and particularly immigration reform. If the Republican Party continues on its hardline course on immigration, he warns, "We'll lose."
"If I were president of the United States, I would veto any bill that did not have a pathway to citizenship," Graham said recently. "You would have a long, hard path to citizenship ... but I want to create that path because I don't like the idea of millions of people living in America for the rest of their lives being the hired help. That's not who we are."
“Do you want people to bend with the wind, to mirror people’s sentiment whoever is in front of you?" Bush asks. "'Oh, yes, I used to be for that, but now, I’m for this'. Is that the way we want to elect presidents?”
That's a damn fine question, and it's pretty clear where Bush was aiming it. His one-time disciple Marco Rubio had once dared to venture outside the fence in championing comprehensive immigration reform, before skittering back into conformity. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin had once supported a pathway to citizenship but he too has reversed course, claiming that it didn't amount to a flip flop since he hadn't actually cast a vote in favor of a citizenship path.
I'm not sure how all of this is going to play out, or what it might mean. Taken collectively, can these challenges break the Republican Party out of the ideological ghetto that it has constructed for itself? Maybe, but it's hard to ignore the fate of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the 2012 frontrunner until he said in a GOP debate that "I don't think you have a heart" if you deny in-state tuition to children of illegal immigrants.
Perry's opponents pounced, all but pointing their collective fingers at him and hissing, and thus began Perry's collapse. You can bet that in the coming debates, moderators and opponents alike will be focusing on those who have strayed from the party line, demanding an explanation.
In fact, you can divide the GOP field into two groups. You've got those listed above, who either out of personal commitment or strategic choice are willing to challenge the party orthodoxy in at least a limited fashion. Then you've got those such as Rubio, Walker and in the more extreme cases Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, who are competing on the basis of how eloquently and passionately they can defend that orthodoxy against all challengers, both inside and outside the party.
In the end, I suspect the latter approach will prove more effective in winning the nomination. The GOP premium on loyalty and the ability of conservative media to enforce strict message discipline are tough hurdles to overcome, especially in such a large field. But it's critical, not just for the party but for the nation, to have people within the GOP trying to broaden the range of acceptable conversation, and by doing so create room for the party to adapt. It suggests an ideological ferment within the Republican Party that both insiders and outsiders are loath to acknowledge, if for very different reasons.