Last week we noted that if Rand Paul wanted to be a serious presidential contender as opposed to a libertarian gadfly he was going to have to distance himself from his father’s extreme anti-Israel views. No one should be holding their breath waiting for the Kentucky senator to speak a word against Ron Paul, but there’s no question he is preparing to cast himself as a different kind of candidate in 2016. To that end, not only did he take the trouble to engage in an exchange with COMMENTARY about his views on Israel, but as Business Insider reported last week, he is also planning a trip to the Jewish state next month.
Trips to Israel by senators and members of Congress are so common that they are hardly newsworthy. But for a devoted opponent of military aid to the Jewish state to be journeying there for the first time is a clear sign that Rand Paul wants to be seen as someone whose views on foreign policy are not the sort of grab bag of libertarian cant and isolationism that characterizes his father’s stance. Even more telling is that Paul will be accompanied on his trip by a group of evangelical leaders. The signal being given here is that the senator wants to be seen by the Republican base as a mainstream conservative and not a libertarian outlier.
Given his opposition to military assistance and his worldview that calls for a weaker U.S. presence in the world, that won’t be easy. But the trip to Israel and Jordan is a start. But the outreach here isn’t to AIPAC and its donors, who rightly regard the younger Paul as just a more presentable version of a father who remains an implacable foe of the U.S.-Israel alliance.
Ron Paul was able to build up a passionate following of libertarians who applauded his rants about the Federal Reserve as well as his isolationist tirades that sounded at times as if they were lifted from the left’s playbook. But he was never able to break through to conservative Christians. His son understands that he will also fail with that demographic and have little chance to win the GOP nomination if they view him as a clone of his father. Christian conservatives view support of Israel as even more of a litmus test than most Jews, so it is incumbent on Rand Paul to either moderate his views or to present them in such a way as to avoid being classified as an opponent of Zion.
However, Christian supporters of Israel won’t be so easily fooled as liberal Jewish supporters of the Jewish state.
Barack Obama was able to pass inspection by liberals by mouthing some platitudes (some of which he quickly retracted) and making an election-year campaign trip to Israel in 2008. So long as he was reliably liberal on other issues, few would look closely at his questionable associations and views on the subject.
But pro-Israel evangelicals are made of sterner stuff than that. Though he is being accompanied by a delegation of pastors and will, no doubt, make the usual stops in Jerusalem and perhaps even be schlepped to southern Israel to inspect the damage done by Hamas missiles, they will judge him on his record, not mere symbolism. Unless he truly changes his views on the subject, he is not likely to make much headway in a community that will judge him harshly for being a false friend to Israel.