It’s doubtful that any of the prominent Republicans thinking about running for president in 2016 are shaking in their boots about the prospect of Peter King joining the race. The congressman from New York has many virtues, but it’s unlikely that too many people outside of the circle of his closest friends regard him as a future president or even a candidate who could make even a minor splash in GOP caucuses and primaries. To say that he hasn’t a prayer of winning the nomination would be to understate the odds facing such an effort. Nor does it appear that even King thinks that much of his chances, since the trial balloon he floated yesterday in an interview with ABC news made it very clear that his purpose is not so much to put together a serious effort to win the presidency as it is to give voice to mainstream views on foreign policy in his party that he feels are being given short shrift.
While it’s easy to scoff at a man whose ambitions clearly outstrip his national appeal, King is right about the vacuum in the party on foreign policy issues. The Long Island representative who has earned a reputation as one of the Republicans’ leading spokesmen on national defense and issues relating to the threat from terrorism is worried that the isolationist views of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul are not only gaining support in the GOP but are not being contested by leading figures who are thinking about the White House. At the moment, none of the leading contenders are taking issue with the ideas being floated by Paul and to a lesser extent by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, or speaking up about the dangers of such a course that is bad policy and bad politics. As much as the national debate is understandably focused on domestic issues involving the need to cut back on President Obama’s drive to expand the scope and the power of government, Republicans cannot hope to win in the future by abandoning their traditional position as the party that believes in a strong American defense and a forward posture toward foreign threats.
The problem King is pointing out here is that a lot of conservatives are either distracted by domestic priorities or intimidated by the Paul drive to bring the isolationist ideas first championed by his crackpot father into the mainstream from the fever swamps where they have always dwelt. The natural cynicism about government felt by most Republicans has grown during the Obama presidency to the point that Paul’s aberrant views about counter-terror policy are starting to look rational. No one likes foreign conflicts or the burden of paying for national defense, but a failure to address these concerns is a formula for even worse problems in the future. As much as the Kentuckian made a splash with his filibuster over the use of drone strikes, his idea that ordinary citizens need to fear a U.S. drone strike on people sitting in Starbucks is not only absurd; it is a direct blow aimed at America’s capacity to defend itself against genuine threats.
But rather than denouncing Paul’s attempt to undermine the national consensus on the war against Islamist terror, most prominent Republicans have ignored it or given it tacit support. Like former ambassador John Bolton, who sent up some smoke signals of his own last month about a presidential run, all King is doing is alerting us to the fact that someone needs to put forward a coherent response to Paul that will assure the country that the GOP hasn’t retreated into an isolationist funk that will undermine any hope that it can appeal to moderates or Reagan Democrats who will never vote for an isolationist.
Of course, there are possible Republican candidates who can stand up to Paul on foreign and defense policy. One such person is Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who is an outspoken advocate of a freedom agenda and strong defense. But King still holds a grudge against Rubio for voting against the initial package of aid for the victims of Hurricane Sandy because it contained the usual litany of earmark projects that had little to do with helping those affected by the storm. Others, such as Paul Ryan, Chris Christie or Jeb Bush, might also eventually take on Paul’s views. But until one of these potential contenders starts publicly disagreeing with Paul and Cruz on these issues, people like King and Bolton are going to think there is no alternative but to jump in to provide an alternative to the isolationist trend.