Anyone doubting that Rand Paul has become one of the Republican Party’s most influential figures need only look at the way he helped influence the abortive congressional debate about Syria. While the decision of House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor to back a strike on the Assad regime swayed few in their caucus, there was little doubt that the libertarian/isolationist wing of the GOP that Paul has led had made it unlikely that a majority could be found for supporting a resolution authorizing the use of force. But there is a difference between rising influence and a workable coalition that could elect Paul president.
Paul’s problem is that while he may have the support of the party’s growing libertarian wing, those who assume that the party’s conservative majority will fall into place behind the Kentucky senator in 2016 seem to have forgotten that social and Christian conservatives still represent a more powerful voting bloc than the movement Rand inherited from his father Ron. And the gap between the Paul franchise’s views on several issues and those of the religious right is not inconsiderable. Bridging the gap on some social issues may not be a big problem, as Paul is reliably pro-life. But his foreign-policy views—in particular his attitude toward Israel—may be a much greater obstacle. Paul made a concerted effort last winter to woo supporters of Israel that paid off with some initial success. But since then it appears that most of those who initially swooned when Paul showed interest have sobered up and realized his visit to the Jewish state didn’t alter his isolationist views. While the senator continues to insist he is a good friend to Israel, some of his comments in a piece in BuzzFeed published last Friday undermine that claim:
“I think some within the Christian community are such great defenders of the promised land and the chosen people that they think war is always the answer, maybe even preemptive war. And I think it’s hard to square the idea of a preemptive war and, to me, that overeagerness [to go to] war, with Christianity.”
It was possible for Paul to make the case against intervention in Syria without dragging Israel into the argument, let alone the fervent evangelical backing for the Jewish state. But the ease with which he shifted from his distaste for the Syrian conflict to mischaracterizing pro-Israel views in such an extreme fashion is telling. That’s the kind of comment that smacks of Ron Paul’s distaste for Israel and its supporters more than the attempt by his son to take their family franchise mainstream. But if Paul thinks these kind of remarks in which such evangelicals are labeled anti-Christian warmongers will help him allay the doubts of that community about his suitability for the presidency, he’s dreaming.
By talking about pre-emptive war, Paul was already staking out the isolationist position on Iran in which it is clear he will oppose any action to avert the nuclear threat from that Islamist regime. But even if we restrict the discussion to Syria, Paul’s animus for the pro-Israel community is hard to disguise. There was a reasonable case to be made for staying out of the Syrian conflict, but his willingness to smear Christians in this manner is a sign of just how great the gap is between Paul’s positions and those who worry about the implications of his isolationist views on the Jewish state.
War should always be a last resort. But Paul’s ideological opposition to a pro-active American policy aimed at backing our friends and limiting the influence of our enemies is one that undermines U.S. security as well as making life more dangerous for Israel is already considerable. As it turns out, President Obama, whose feckless retreat from half-hearted intervention to a position that, in a strange echo of Ron Paul’s beliefs, abandons the Middle East to Russia and Iran, is giving us a limited preview of what a Paul presidency would be like for the region.
It is one thing, as Paul acknowledged to BuzzFeed, for Republicans to oppose intervention when advocated by President Obama. But it will be quite another thing when the senator is forced to defend these views and his pot shot against Christian friends of Israel in a GOP primary in 2016. Isolationism may have taken root among some Tea Partiers, but it will be a hard sell for Paul to convince Evangelicals that he can be trusted to defend the U.S. against Islamists and to maintain an alliance with Israel that he has never been that enthusiastic about.
Paul’s lukewarm Jewish charm offensive last winter made it clear he understands that it would be impossible for anyone to win the GOP nomination by sticking to his father’s foreign-policy views, which are in many respects indistinguishable from the far left. But flushed with the success of his campaign to expand the isolationist wing of the party on issues like drones, the NSA intercepts, and Syria, Paul has gotten sloppy. That quote about Christians won’t be forgotten when those voters must choose the next Republican presidential candidate.