There's a good reason so many GOP candidates seem to be well-prepared yet uncannily in sync when it comes to foreign policy: Most of them have tapped the same group of experts for guidance, a shadow foreign policy campaign infrastructure just waiting for a nominee to emerge.
Ever since Mitt Romney lost the race in 2012, his foreign policy team has been working to remain intact, become a resource for as many primary candidates as possible, and position itself to influence the next president, if he or she is a Republican. For candidates who haven't the time or resources to build their own foreign policy staffs at this stage, the project, called the John Hay Initiative, is a handy tool to get smart fast on complicated subjects and even hand off some heavy lifting on national security issues.
For the party itself, the group's omnipresence behind scenes is shaping a hawkish, right-of-Hillary-Clinton foreign policy agenda that is quickly becoming the established position of the party hopefuls going into 2016.
Texas Governor Rick Perry has credited the group in several media appearances, such as his June 21 appearance on 'Fox News Sunday' when he was asked how he had boned up on foreign policy since his last run.
"Sitting with George Shultz and Henry Kissinger and Brian Hook at the Hay Initiative, individuals who have deep knowledge what's going on in the world," Perry said, "I feel very comfortable now sitting on the stage that I can have those conversations and regurgitate that information."
Can you identify which of those men is not a former secretary of state? Hook, a lawyer and former Romney adviser, is part of the triumvirate that founded and runs the group of 200 experts, assembled into over 20 issue-based working groups. The others are former Bush administration officials Eric Edelman and Eliot Cohen.
"We've worked hard over the last couple years to be a policy resource for 2016 campaigns," Hook told me. "We're not political. We focus on the issues."
The co-founders say the group issues biweekly policy papers on a range of issues, does specific research for different campaigns on demand, and has briefed more than half of the 17 Republican candidates running for president. The Hay Initiative helped write recent foreign policy speeches for Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie, speeches that struck very similar notes. Members have also briefed Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham and others. Rand Paul and Donald Trump are the outliers who have no interaction with the group, likely because their foreign policy views don't jibe.
The group doesn't just cater to big names; it draws on them as well. Speakers have come to address the group, usually at the Hay-Adams Hotel near the White House, the former residence of the group's namesake, Abraham Lincoln's personal secretary who later became Teddy Roosevelt's secretary of state. Karl Rove, Senator John McCain, Representative Buck McKeon and Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations have all stopped by.
As the campaigns have begun to staff up on foreign policy this summer, several Hay Initiative members have gone to work for them, while still being affiliated with the group. Bush has several Hay Initiative members on his large foreign policy team, like former Bush administration officials Michael Chertoff, Michael Hayden and Meghan O'Sullivan. A top member of the team, Robert Karem, worked with the group when he was a Hill aide.
Although Walker hasn't announced his team, he has one, and Hay Initiative leaders like former Senator Jim Talent and the McCain Institute's David Kramer are on it, according to several foreign policy advisers to the campaign. Rubio foreign policy advisers including Roger Zakheim have also been involved.
"Many of our working group members have joined campaigns in various roles, and we've encouraged that from the beginning," said Hook.
There's been some concern in the GOP foreign policy community that all the candidates are coalescing out of convenience into a hawkish foreign policy stance. Most of the GOP foreign policy campaign talk surrounds promotion of "leadership" and "strength" and criticises Obama and Clinton as weak national security leaders who have abandoned allies, coddled adversaries and neglected metastasising threats like the Islamic State. That's essentially the foreign policy platform Romney ran on in 2012.
Edelman, the Hay Initiative co-founder, said that the near unanimity on foreign policy among candidates was a reflection of the assumption that one of them would face Clinton, not because of anything the Hay Initiative was pushing.
"I think the coalescence of candidates around a robust policy has been really driven by events and by the palpable failings of the Obama administration," he said.
In 2012, Obama's foreign policy was relatively popular. This time around, it's not. So a repeat of Romney's strategy could be more successful. Also, if Clinton is the Democratic nominee, her time as secretary of state will bring national security to the fore.
"She's got more experience, but she's also got the baggage of the administration's foreign policy, which she was a part of," said Edelman.
Hay Initiative leaders say they see their project not only as a foreign policy campaign shop, but also the beginnings of a foreign policy staff for a future president.
"For candidates who have a conservative, centrist foreign policy, it gives you a huge virtual staff," said Cohen. "When there is a candidate, you are going to have a reasonable cohesive foreign policy establishment behind you. That's important for the campaign, and it's important for governance."
The actual impact of the Hay Initiative at this stage is hard to discern. The group has definitely allowed several candidates to sound plausibly presidential on foreign policy and helped frame some debate inside the party. And in part because of the group, the Republican presidential nominee's foreign policy in 2016 will likely look a lot like Romney's did in 2012.
The article first appeared in The Washington Post