It’s been a good month for Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Last week, conservatives applauded as Paul tore into Bill Clinton as a sexual predator. Much of the nation was puzzled by the exchange because they couldn’t see how a rerun of the debate over the Monica Lewinsky scandal would help the GOP stop Hillary Clinton from being elected president in 2016. But many Republicans cheered because it showed that Paul had the guts to take on the Clintons and a mainstream media that continues to treat the former president as a revered figure in spite of his past. Paul added more luster to his image today by a filing a class action lawsuit against President Obama and the heads of U.S intelligence agencies over the National Security Agency’s metadata collection program. Like the spat with Clinton, the lawsuit is more about public relations than substance. But the support it has gotten from the GOP base shows that it is no longer possible to dismiss the senator as merely a housetrained version of his father—libertarian gadfly Ron Paul.
A year after Paul rocketed to stardom with a 13-hour Senate filibuster protesting administration policy on drone strikes against terror targets, the younger Paul is a genuine GOP star and a potential first-tier presidential contender for 2016. Unlike Ted Cruz he chose not to identify himself with the cause of the government shutdown that so tarnished the GOP brand last fall, thus showing he is willing to edge closer to the party establishment on tactics. More importantly, his views on distrust of government and foreign policy—positions that were bolstered by a series of Obama administration scandals involving the IRS, spying, and Benghazi—seem more mainstream today than ever. Though Paul’s stunt to force the government to give up its collection program may fail, the question is whether Paul’s views reflect mainstream Republican thinking. An even better question is if they are not, why aren’t more GOP leaders publicly disagreeing with Paul?
Paul’s effort to revive the argument about the NSA is clearly popular among the GOP base. Indeed, as the New York Times noted, the lead lawyer in the lawsuit is Ken Cuccinelli, the former Virginia attorney general and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate. Cuccinelli is a Tea Party favorite and his involvement is a symbol of the budding alliance between the anti-tax-and-spend base of the GOP and the libertarians led by Paul. While not all Tea Partiers are all that familiar with Paul’s isolationist foreign-policy views, they are, like most Americans, war weary after Iraq and Afghanistan and also more suspicious about an intrusive big government in the age of Barack Obama than ever.
Unfortunately, anger about administration spying on journalists, Benghazi, and an IRS scandal that the media still refuses to address seems to have become conflated with paranoia about intelligence gathering. Though the metadata collection program has been shown to be both legal and necessary for tracking down leads about terrorist threats, the details revealed about U.S. intelligence procedures by Edward Snowden are seen by many conservatives as no different from the abuses at the IRS.
But the problem here is not just that Paul’s attack on the NSA is a mistake that if successful would, like most of the senator’s foreign-policy views, result in a dangerous U.S. retreat from its global responsibilities, but that virtually no one—including his most likely rivals for the Republican presidential nomination—is speaking up to distance themselves from Paul’s stand or to put forward a different foreign-policy vision that would be more in tune with the GOP’s traditional support for a strong defense and American interests around the globe.
That is not to say that there are no Republicans who publicly disagree with Paul. Senator Marco Rubio, whose 2016 stock has gone down in the last year, is a reliable advocate of a strong America and the defense of freedom. But despite making some speeches on the subject, Rubio has declined to publicly disagree with Paul.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie did pick a fight with Paul on the NSA issue last summer, but his grasp of the subject was tenuous. I would argue that Bridgegate has finished him as a serious presidential prospect but even if he does get back into the picture for 2016, his lack of foreign-policy knowledge and inability to express informed opinions on the subject will handicap his efforts to draw a distinction between himself and Paul.
Other potential Republicans like Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, or Paul Ryan may also differ with Paul’s isolationism. But the longer they stay out of the contest—necessitated in Walker’s case by his reelection campaign in Wisconsin—the more Paul has the stage to himself rendering it more difficult for other GOP candidates to change the discussion about national security back to one of concern for national defense from the Kentuckian’s anti-government focus.
Of course, there is one Republican talking about running for president that is taking on Rand Paul: New York Rep. Peter King. King is, in fact, one of the few voices of political sanity on foreign affairs in the GOP these days and has no compunction about taking shots at Paul. But the problem is that the New Yorker has no national political appeal and has no chance of winning the nomination. Suffice it to say that if Paul’s takeover of GOP foreign policy is to be stopped, Republicans need to find a more credible candidate than King.
Though his views are more popular than ever, the assumption that Rand Paul speaks for most conservatives on foreign or defense policy is still untrue. But unless mainstream Republicans find someone other than King to publicly challenge Paul, the impression that the senator is the voice of the GOP on security issues will start to take hold. Savvy Republicans know that they will never win back the presidency by running to the left of Hillary Clinton on national security, thereby allowing a liberal and her party to look like responsible centrists. Though it is two years until the 2016 primaries, the push back against Paul can’t start early enough.