Commentary Magazine


Topic: Rand Paul

Will ISIS Votes Haunt 2016 Contenders?

The country seems firmly behind President Obama’s belated decision to use force against ISIS terrorists and to arm some of the Syrian rebels who will oppose them on the ground. But this seeming consensus isn’t affecting the votes of some Republican presidential contenders. Though even a libertarian neo-isolationist like Senator Rand Paul now says he favors carrying the fight to ISIS, he and some others will be voting no on the Syrian component of the president’s plan. That appears to be the safest course for anyone who fears being tarred with support of an Obama initiative or what may prove to be another unpopular war in a future Republican presidential primary. That will make today’s vote an interesting test of character for those 2016 contenders who may have serious qualms about the president’s strategy but know that advocating standing aside would be a dereliction of duty.

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The country seems firmly behind President Obama’s belated decision to use force against ISIS terrorists and to arm some of the Syrian rebels who will oppose them on the ground. But this seeming consensus isn’t affecting the votes of some Republican presidential contenders. Though even a libertarian neo-isolationist like Senator Rand Paul now says he favors carrying the fight to ISIS, he and some others will be voting no on the Syrian component of the president’s plan. That appears to be the safest course for anyone who fears being tarred with support of an Obama initiative or what may prove to be another unpopular war in a future Republican presidential primary. That will make today’s vote an interesting test of character for those 2016 contenders who may have serious qualms about the president’s strategy but know that advocating standing aside would be a dereliction of duty.

That’s the quandary for Senator Marco Rubio, who stands second to none in the Senate as a critic of the president’s foreign policy. Rubio has rightly denounced the president’s failures in the Middle East and, in particular, his abandonment of Iraq and dithering on Syria that allowed ISIS to become a dominant force in both countries on Obama’s watch. Like other conservatives as well as a not insignificant number of liberal senators, he’s also rightly worried that the president’s plans for this conflict are woefully inadequate to the situation. More than that, along with many Republicans, he believes the president is wrong not to seek an explicit authorization from Congress to fight ISIS rather than to merely pretend, as the administration wrongly contends, that the 2001 vote granting President Bush the right to use troops against al-Qaeda also applies to the rival, and now more powerful, group.

But Rubio has indicated that he will vote yes for the authorization on Syria. The question now is whether this will haunt him or anyone else planning on running for higher office or reelection.

Rand Paul seemed to be saying as much when he said yesterday that members of Congress were petrified by a possible vote to authorize force. Senator Ted Cruz, whose views on foreign policy are a lot closer to those of Rubio than they are to Paul, seems to agree. Cruz said he would oppose arming the Syrian rebels because the administration doesn’t really have a clue as to which groups opposing the regime of Bashar Assad are “good guys” and which are “bad.”

It’s difficult to argue too strenuously with those qualms. The president’s adamant refusal to act on the growing catastrophe in Syria not only enabled ISIS to fill the void but also undermined the chances that genuine moderates might be able to replace the despotic Assad regime and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies.

Moreover, there are, as the New York Times noted today, ominous precedents for senators who swallow hard and vote to authorize the use of force but later have that decision thrown in their face by primary opponents. Hillary Clinton, who voted for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq while in the Senate, found herself outflanked on the left by Barack Obama in 2008. The question facing Rubio and the rest of the Senate is one that juxtaposes the certainty that voting for an expanded conflict will be viewed by many voters as a mistake against the certainty that the failure to act will allow ISIS to prevail in the fighting.

As I noted yesterday, as the U.S. prepares to step up the fight against ISIS, the country’s main problem is not the lack of a strategy but the seeming inability of the president to play the part of a wartime leader. Supporting operations in the Middle East under such circumstances is a perilous undertaking. So, too, is any effort to finally aid those Syrian forces that are not linked to Islamists or Assad and the Iranians.

But Rubio is right to worry more about the danger of inaction than any possible political repercussions. Were the U.S. to stand aside in Syria, especially with the president foolishly taking the threat of a direct intervention on the ground off the table, the consequences would be grave. If, as most Americans rightly now understand, ISIS is a serious threat to U.S. security, any counterattack undertaken now, whether well led or not, is bound to improve the situation. More to the point, the failure to act would be a potential catastrophe and might make all the difference in the ultimate outcome of a conflict in which U.S. success is not assured, notwithstanding the braggadocio being heard to that effect in Washington these days.

There is no way of knowing today whether votes on Syria or Iraq will be major liabilities in the winter or spring of 2016 or, indeed, if the ISIS threat will still be an issue at that time. The year and a half between now and the presidential primaries is a lifetime in politics. But Paul and Cruz are probably right in reckoning that any vote that can be construed as insufficiently anti-Obama is a safe bet and that those who vote yes are giving up a valuable hostage to fortune, whether or not they run for president.

Just as it is simple to second guess those who voted for war in Iraq without thinking what dangers would have resulted from doing nothing, it will be easy to take pot shots at those who vote yes today. But Rubio is still in the right here. The costs of doing nothing in war are usually higher than those of boldness. Even with an inadequate leader who is not prepared to do everything to achieve victory, the situation will be better off if the U.S. finally starts to do something to alter the correlation of forces in Syria and Iraq against both Assad and the terrorists. Voting no may eventually be popular, but it won’t be the right thing to do.

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The Ever-Expanding 2016 GOP Field

The nature of the GOP’s nominating race for 2016 is such that good polls for some potential candidates are also tempting for others not yet included in the polls. For example, the most recent polling on Iowa, which Jonathan wrote about last week, showed Mike Huckabee with a healthy lead. Early polls are about name recognition, so they can only be taken so far. Nonetheless, candidates who have already built name recognition by running in the past can’t help but notice the value of such recognition when some of their strongest competitors are, theoretically, relative unknowns nationwide.

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The nature of the GOP’s nominating race for 2016 is such that good polls for some potential candidates are also tempting for others not yet included in the polls. For example, the most recent polling on Iowa, which Jonathan wrote about last week, showed Mike Huckabee with a healthy lead. Early polls are about name recognition, so they can only be taken so far. Nonetheless, candidates who have already built name recognition by running in the past can’t help but notice the value of such recognition when some of their strongest competitors are, theoretically, relative unknowns nationwide.

Take this summer poll from Gallup on the public’s familiarity with 2016 candidates. The only two Republicans to crack 60 percent were Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. Other than those two, the potential candidates who had run presidential campaigns in the past tended to score higher than those who haven’t yet run–a quite logical finding. If he wins reelection in Wisconsin, Scott Walker would be considered among the GOP’s strongest candidates (on paper at least, which is all we have so far for the newbies). Walker was involved in a high-stakes national issue: the fight over public unions. And thanks to that, he was subject to a recall election that saw national press and mobilized national liberal groups. Yet Gallup found Walker with the lowest familiarity of any of the GOP candidates, at just 34 percent.

Similarly, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal–the human résumé–was at just 38 percent. Huckabee was at 54 percent, higher than previous candidate Rick Santorum (but lower than Rick Perry) as well as all the non-previous candidates except Christie, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul, who was at 55 percent. Huckabee also tied Christie for the highest favorability rating in that poll.

And that poll didn’t even include Mitt Romney, who shows up leading New Hampshire polls for the same reason Huckabee polls well in Iowa. And while a Romney candidacy would certainly have its cheerleaders, Huckabee is talking openly about testing those polls:

The Republican told a group of reporters on Monday over coffee at a restaurant just outside of D.C. that he learned from his failed 2008 bid that he can’t take money and fundraising for granted, even though he is leading in GOP early primary state polls.

Huckabee says he will make a decision early next year about another presidential run but noted he’s in a “different place than I was eight years ago,” due to a lucrative career as a Fox News and radio show host.

That career has also opened the door to meetings with donors he said he wouldn’t have gotten in 2008. Then, they’d say, “Who are you? How do you spell your name?”

In fact, Huckabee said he’s in talks with donors, and, “with a lot of people, it’s [going] pretty good.” He pointed to the nonprofit, America Takes Action, which he recently set up that, he says, has already raised seven figures.

“Not a single person I’ve asked [to contribute to the group] has said no,” he told reporters.

Huckabee had a decent run for an underdog in 2008 and he has a natural constituency, as well as an amiability that translates into votes. The same cannot be said for another retread who is the subject of speculation: former Utah governor Jon Huntsman.

Huntsman has a few things going for him: he’s got gubernatorial experience as well as foreign-policy chops from his time as ambassador to China, and he has considerable financial resources at his disposal. But unlike Huckabee, outside of the media Huntsman has no natural base (and the reporters who love him will vote for Hillary anyway in the general). And also unlike Huckabee, Huntsman is almost shockingly unlikeable for a politician.

Huntsman has a general disposition that is about as pleasant as nails on a chalkboard. He does not like Republican voters, and he does not want them to think otherwise. The feeling is mutual: Huntsman’s numbers from 2012 suggest the pool of Huntsman voters is made up entirely of people who are either named Huntsman or owe him money.

And then there is Jindal, a smart, wonky conservative with executive experience and a strong command of the issues. Jindal’s name recognition is so low that he’s forced to be less coy than others about his possible presidential ambitions:

“There’s no reason to be coy,” Jindal said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “I am thinking, I am praying about whether I’ll run in 2016. I said I won’t make that decision until after November.”

Jindal has certain strengths: he’s as smart as Huntsman pretends he is, for starters. And he’s far from insufferable about it: he doesn’t project arrogance, just competence. He’s been twice elected governor of Louisiana, so he has experience on the campaign trail. He’s proved himself in a crisis. And he seems to genuinely like interacting with voters.

But his competition would include another impressive, reformist conservative governor in Scott Walker; other young conservatives with poise and presence, like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and possibly Ted Cruz; and more experienced social conservatives such as, potentially, Huckabee, Rick Perry, and perhaps Mike Pence. The question, then, is whether Jindal could find some way to stand out from the pack. And with polls like those we’ve seen so far, that roster of rivals is likely to keep expanding.

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Rand Paul Wants to Know Why All These Straw Men Are So Mean to Him

Rand Paul, in danger of getting tagged with the dreaded “flip-flopper” label, is pushing back on critics who claim he’s been inconsistent on foreign policy. Specifically, the issue revolves around Syria, where he once opposed intervention and now supports it to battle ISIS. On this, Paul is right: the situation has changed, and many of those disinclined to intervene on behalf of the Syrian rebels–several of us here at COMMENTARY among them–believe the emergence of ISIS presents a threat that must be defeated, or at the very least contained. So why is Paul meeting such a tough audience?

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Rand Paul, in danger of getting tagged with the dreaded “flip-flopper” label, is pushing back on critics who claim he’s been inconsistent on foreign policy. Specifically, the issue revolves around Syria, where he once opposed intervention and now supports it to battle ISIS. On this, Paul is right: the situation has changed, and many of those disinclined to intervene on behalf of the Syrian rebels–several of us here at COMMENTARY among them–believe the emergence of ISIS presents a threat that must be defeated, or at the very least contained. So why is Paul meeting such a tough audience?

Indeed, interventionists have reason to cheer Paul’s about-face: he will drag anti-interventionists, kicking and screaming if necessary, along with him because there is no more libertarian first-tier GOP candidate than Paul. But for those who have paid attention to Paul over these last few years, it’s actually quite easy to understand why he doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt more often, and why, specifically, Paul’s previous opposition to intervention was treated as an ideological marker. It’s because Paul has always chosen to present his views in starkly ideological terms while being thoroughly dishonest, repeatedly and unapologetically, about those with whom he disagrees.

In fairness to Paul, here’s his side of the Syria story from an interview he gave to the Federalist:

The thing that I in some ways laugh at, because nobody seems to get this, is that I spent the past five years in public life telling everyone that “hey, I’m not an isolationist” … and when they find out I’m not, they say I’ve switched positions, because I’m not the position they were saying I was. You know what I mean? So for five years they’ve been accusing me of being something that I say I’m not. And then when they find out I’m really not, they say I’ve changed my position. You can see how it’s a little bit frustrating for me.

In the same interview, he also explains his support for striking ISIS as a defense not only of American interests but primarily of America itself:

With ISIS, they’re beheading American citizens, they’ve actively said that if they can, and when they can, they’ll come to New York. They’re within, I think a day’s march or a day’s drive of Erbil and the consulate there. I think that they probably would be repelled in Baghdad, but they could be a threat to Baghdad. I think ultimately if left to their own devices, they could organize the same way Al-Qaeda organized in Afghanistan, and if given a safe haven that they could be a real threat to us at home.

All fair enough, though if anything Paul understates the case for intervention here. But there was an earlier line in his answer that caught my attention. He said: “In general, if you look throughout the Middle East, you’ll find it’s a complicated area with complicated movements on all sides ….” Ah, complexity. Now we’re getting somewhere.

It is complexity that has been absent from the way Paul so often describes his colleagues and ideological opponents. Paul is perhaps the one Republican who can compete with Barack Obama for the obsessive use of straw men. Paul is an intelligent man, but he has written some ostentatiously unintelligent things. Here is how he opens a piece he wrote for National Review Online defending his foreign-policy outlook:

The knives are out for conservatives who dare question unlimited involvement in foreign wars.

In one sentence, Paul deploys the warmongering straw man and displays a petulant sense of victimhood. But it actually gets worse. Here’s the next sentence:

Foreign policy, the interventionist critics claim, has no place for nuance or realism. You are either for us or against us. No middle ground is acceptable. The Wilsonian ideologues must have democracy worldwide now and damn all obstacles to that utopia. I say sharpen your knives, because the battle once begun will not end easily.

Holy moly, that’s some sandwich-board sloganeering right there, sliding into the redemptive politics of messianic paranoia. If only that were the rare outlier. Unfortunately, it’s not. Even after coming around to the fact that the interventionists are right about ISIS, Paul offers this childish dig at those who were right before he realized it:

There’s no point in taking military action just for the sake of it, something Washington leaders can’t seem to understand.

Yes, Rand Paul wants to take military action against ISIS. Many of his colleagues in the Senate want to do exactly the same thing. But Rand Paul, alone among them, has good reasons for it. Everyone else simply likes to bomb things because of how much they love war. Only Rand Paul has a reasonable justification for the war he and his colleagues want. Even when he agrees with other Republicans, Paul just can’t avoid assuming the worst intentions on the part of his colleagues.

He’s also shown a tendency toward indefensibly credulous thinking. At times, this just shows poor judgment, such as the fact that he apparently still buys into a completely debunked rumor about John McCain and ISIS. Other times, it’s conventional anti-interventionist groupthink about what “neocons” are doing with “your money.”

If Rand Paul has begun opening up his worldview to embrace the complexity of global politics, all the better. It might one day prevent him from sanctimoniously attributing the worst intentions even to those he agrees with while maniacally setting fire to fields of straw men. Until that day arrives, his wounded victim act will remain utterly unconvincing.

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Deep Bench? None in GOP Stand Out for ’16

Paying attention to presidential polls two years in advance can be something of a sucker’s game. We are a long way from intense campaigning, let alone voting, which means such polls tend to be more about name recognition than anything else. Yet the latest poll of Iowa Republicans about 2016 makes it hard to avoid some hard conclusions about the nature of the race and the roster of possible candidates. While Democrats still appear to be ready to coronate Hillary Clinton as their nominee, the Republican race really is wide open. For the first time in recent memory, there really will be no one who can be considered a frontrunner.

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Paying attention to presidential polls two years in advance can be something of a sucker’s game. We are a long way from intense campaigning, let alone voting, which means such polls tend to be more about name recognition than anything else. Yet the latest poll of Iowa Republicans about 2016 makes it hard to avoid some hard conclusions about the nature of the race and the roster of possible candidates. While Democrats still appear to be ready to coronate Hillary Clinton as their nominee, the Republican race really is wide open. For the first time in recent memory, there really will be no one who can be considered a frontrunner.

The Iowa poll confirms the cliché about name recognition since the runaway leader in the survey of possible GOP presidential candidates is Mike Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor has been a favorite in the Hawkeye State since winning the caucus there in 2008. But it’s been several years since the talk show was active politically and there is no indication that he will run. If we eliminate him we see that the leader is Rep. Paul Ryan with only 12 percent supporting him. The rest of the field is in single digits with none of the big names, such as Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, or Rick Perry making much of an impact. Nor has Rick Santorum, who won Iowa in 2012 in a huge upset after months of beating the bushes in rural counties, retained much support as he comes in as the preference of only three percent.

There’s good news and bad news for Republicans in these poll figures.

The good news is that 2016 shapes up to be a competitive and interesting race. No imposing frontrunner with deep pockets will be there to scare off talented candidates who want to test the waters. The GOP has to hope that in contrast to the chaos of 2012, with a more rational debate and primary schedule this time, the party will be able to run a competitive race that will produce a presidential candidate with the political moxie to effectively challenge Hillary Clinton.

The bad news is that although Republicans have spent much of the last two years bragging about their deep political bench, the roster of GOP presidential wannabes may not be as bright as they thought. By this time, somebody in the field should have been capable of impressing early state voters and caucus-goers as a potential keeper. But so far, none seems to stand out in contrast to the others.

Each would-be candidate has had his ups and downs. Christie might have been in a very strong position by now but Bridgegate derailed his potential juggernaut. Paul remains a strong candidate but ISIS and various other global crises have made his neo-isolationism a lot less attractive to the GOP mainstream. Rubio had a bad 2013 and the conservative base may never forgive him for backing an immigration reform bill. The others haven’t broken through yet and even old familiar names like Jeb Bush don’t seem to be attracting more than token support.

While this is good news for journalists who love a close horse race, it needs to be emphasized that this is really unexplored territory for Republicans who have a historical tradition of liking front-runners, especially those who have run and lost before. You have to go back to 1940 when dark horse Wendell Wilkie edged New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey to get the right to oppose Franklin D. Roosevelt’s bid for a third term to find a GOP presidential race that was as wide open as the one we will witness in 2016. In every presidential contest since then, there has been at least one or two genuine frontrunner types or former candidates who dominate the race. That means that whoever does emerge from this battle will almost certainly at least start the 2016 general-election campaign as a heavy underdog to Clinton.

It is possible that one or two of the current bunch scrambling for attention will break through in 2015 and enter the primary season as something resembling a frontrunner. But for now, it appears to be a struggle in which none have anything that looks like a clear advantage. Since even the best of them have little experience on the national stage, questions about whether this deep bench is equal to the task of running for president are entirely legitimate.

That’s why the buzz about Mitt Romney returning to the fray seems to be about more than buyer’s remorse about President Obama’s dismal second term or guilt on the part of conservatives that trashed their 2012 nominee but now realize the former Massachusetts governor wasn’t so bad after all. In a race where none of the contenders have a real political or financial advantage, a candidate with the name recognition and the fundraising prowess of Romney might sweep the field again as he did last time.

This isn’t an argument for Romney running again. A third trip to the well might not yield any better results for him than the previous one. He’s right to say, as he continues to insist, that it’s time for some one else to step up and take their turn. But it must be conceded that in a race this open, anything can happen. Instead of celebrating the diversity of riches in their candidate roster, Republicans need to be wondering which, if any of them, can step up and show they’re ready to tangle with Clinton. Right now, the sports cliché about all prospects being suspects seems to apply to the GOP field.

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Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and the End of the Isolationist Moment

Early in 2013 when Senator Rand Paul’s Senate filibuster catapulted him into the first tier of potential 2016 presidential candidates, the first of his colleagues to rush to the floor to support him was Ted Cruz. The freshman from Texas was then in the process of establishing his own reputation as a Senate firebrand but many wrongly assumed that his endorsement of Paul’s grandstanding about administration drone attacks meant that he shared the Kentuckian’s foreign-policy views. Flash forward to today and not only is Cruz staking out a position opposing Paul’s positions, but the libertarian is himself inching toward the center on the question of foreign interventions. In other words, the isolationist moment in both the Republican Party and the nation appears to be over.

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Early in 2013 when Senator Rand Paul’s Senate filibuster catapulted him into the first tier of potential 2016 presidential candidates, the first of his colleagues to rush to the floor to support him was Ted Cruz. The freshman from Texas was then in the process of establishing his own reputation as a Senate firebrand but many wrongly assumed that his endorsement of Paul’s grandstanding about administration drone attacks meant that he shared the Kentuckian’s foreign-policy views. Flash forward to today and not only is Cruz staking out a position opposing Paul’s positions, but the libertarian is himself inching toward the center on the question of foreign interventions. In other words, the isolationist moment in both the Republican Party and the nation appears to be over.

In recent weeks, Paul’s drift away from the views shared by his father and the legions of libertarian extremist supporters that he has inherited from him has escalated to the point where the senator has opened himself up to charges of flip-flopping.

Paul seemed to be riding the wave of revulsion against the American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan last year when his filibuster helped make him the new darling of the GOP. While the senator has consistently maintained that he is a realist in the mode of James Baker rather than an isolationist, there was no doubt about his desire to pull back from engagement in the war on Islamist terror until recent developments made it obvious that such stands were not as popular as he thought.

For example, in his Wall Street Journal op-ed published in June he stated the case that “America shouldn’t choose sides in Iraq” and that there was, “no good case for U.S. intervention now.” But three months later, he’s singing a different tune. Last week in a TIME magazine article, he not only proclaimed that he “was not an isolationist” but went on to claim “if I had been in President Obama’s shoes, I would have acted more decisively and strongly against ISIS.”

Paul’s apologists will, as is their job, attempt to spin the two pieces as somehow representing the same position. But for those of us who are not determined to rationalize every twist and turn that he must follow in his quest for the presidency, the contradiction is pretty obvious. Though he remains opposed to “nation building,” the Rand Paul of 2010, let alone 2013, would be scratching his head about his criticism of President Obama for “disengaging” in Iraq. Put it down to Paul putting his finger in the wind and rightly determining that sticking to his non-interventionist line after the ISIS beheading would be a problem for most conservatives.

All of which partly explains Cruz’s recent emphasis on his own, more mainstream foreign-policy views. On ABC’s This Week on Sunday, Cruz not only enunciated positions critical of Obama and in favor of a more muscular U.S. foreign and defense policy that is consistent with traditional GOP stands that Paul has opposed. He also made it clear that he thinks the distance between Paul and himself on that issue is significant enough to create a real opening for him in 2016.

While more marginal (at least in terms of their chances of winning the nomination) Republicans such as John Bolton and Rep. Peter King have stated that they would run if there was no clear advocate of a strong foreign policy in the field to oppose Paul, Cruz is thinking the same thing. Since there is not much to differentiate him from Paul on domestic issues, the Texan thinks his consistent support of Israel and position in favor of re-asserting American power in the world gives him the chance to assume the Reaganite mantle in Republican primaries.

Is he right?

Cruz has some clear strengths, but also liabilities. He is the hero of Tea Partiers who love his willingness to confront Democrats on every issue, to refuse to play by the rules of the old Senate game about going along in order to get along. But what Tea Party activists see as a commitment to principle, other Republicans view as a mad commitment to suicidal tactics like last year’s government shutdown. Cruz’s unwillingness to acknowledge that mistake makes him anathema to the GOP establishment as well as others who see him as a loose cannon. But his mainstream foreign-policy views could give him an opening with these sectors of the party, including major donors even if he must be considered, at best, as an extreme long shot.

But whether Cruz’s 2016 hopes are realistic or not isn’t the point of recent developments. What we’ve seen in the last few months is the crackup of the libertarian alliance that looked to have a decent chance to take over the Republican Party last year as war weariness and suspicion of the Obama administration seemed to turn the Republican worldview upside down. With Paul retreating from not only his father’s extremism but also from some of his own “realist” stands and Cruz leading a faction of the Tea Party into what he hopes will be a foreign-policy debate in which he will champion the cause of a strong stand in the Middle East, it appears the isolationist moment in American politics is over.

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Interventionists and Rand Paul: A Response to Jim Antle

In his column at the American Conservative, the Daily Caller’s Jim Antle tries to make the argument that Rand Paul will expand the GOP’s foreign-policy tent. In the process, he takes quite a few swings at those he deems “hawks” for not letting noninterventionists sit at the cool kids’ lunch table, and he ascribes to these hawks a typical set of caricatures and exaggerations. Since I am the only commentator mentioned by name in the article, I think it’s worth responding to many of the false assumptions in the piece.

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In his column at the American Conservative, the Daily Caller’s Jim Antle tries to make the argument that Rand Paul will expand the GOP’s foreign-policy tent. In the process, he takes quite a few swings at those he deems “hawks” for not letting noninterventionists sit at the cool kids’ lunch table, and he ascribes to these hawks a typical set of caricatures and exaggerations. Since I am the only commentator mentioned by name in the article, I think it’s worth responding to many of the false assumptions in the piece.

I should point out that I don’t think Antle is attempting to ascribe to me all the opinions he criticizes. I’m not so vain as to think this entire song is about me. But that’s unclear because of the fact that Antle only mentions me and does not cite by name the other “hawks” he criticizes. Additionally, Antle is a very smart conservative who wrote a very good book on the perils of big government, and he stands out from his AmConMag colleagues by neither shilling for Vladimir Putin nor living in fear of the Israel Lobby hiding in the shadows. As such, it’s worth engaging his arguments.

First, here is Antle’s characterization of my opinion on Rand Paul:

This failure to understand how Republicans like Paul actually view foreign policy was illustrated by a Commentary item last year examining the whole concept of “libertarian foreign policy.” Its author, Seth Mandel, quotes Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash saying some measured things about the just grounds for the Afghan War and how to contain Iran, which Mandel contrasts with “the limited scope of Rand Paul’s argument on the NSA.”

Evidently taking Amash’s nuance to be entirely different from Senator Paul’s approach, Mandel concludes, “if Paul wants a major retrenchment from the world and a more isolationist foreign policy, he does not appear to be speaking for any major politician but himself—and that includes those we think of as staunch libertarians.”

This seems to ignore a third possibility: that many on the right who want some degree of “retrenchment from the world,” who have a higher threshold for the use of military force than do most Commentary contributors, are still willing to act militarily against genuine threats to the United States and its interests.

This is a curious bone to pick for a few reasons. First, I was making the point that prominent libertarian figures are not isolationists, and that if Paul wants a “more isolationist foreign policy”–note I do not call Paul an isolationist either, but compare him to other libertarians–he would be an outlier among libertarians. Second, it’s easy to look back on that, which was written in July 2013, and say Paul isn’t a noninterventionist–but that’s because Paul’s position on intervention and on specific threats have changed dramatically as popular opinion has changed. Antle’s criticism of Paul circa summer 2013 should be taken up with Paul, who has since repudiated Paul.

Third, anyone who thinks I’ve tried to write Paul and noninterventionists out of the conservative mainstream quite simply hasn’t read what I’ve written on him. Earlier in 2013, for example, I wrote an entire piece on the fact that Rand Paul’s foreign policy was conservative, and was part of the traditional “spheres of thought” in the conservative movement going back to the emergence of the national security state after World War II. I specifically state (as I have many times) that I didn’t consider Paul to be a military isolationist but rather a throwback to the kind of serious conservative opposition to what many saw as the advent of the national-security version of the New Deal. I just think he’s wrong on the merits.

I’ve also been quite clear that I think Paul, and libertarians in general, have been getting an unfair shake from those who misunderstand libertarianism. So it’s puzzling that Antle, who is usually far more honest in debate, would write verifiably false statements like: “Therefore, libertarians and antiwar conservatives are not simply less hawkish or less interventionist. They must always be described as isolationists, even in cases when they clearly do believe the U.S. has interests outside its own hemisphere.”

But there’s something else in Antle’s piece that deserves some pushback. Antle says hawks were wrong about Iraq (I was in college at the time, and don’t remember taking any kind of public position on the invasion of Iraq, so once again Antle could have found a slightly more relevant–that is to say, relevant at all–example) and therefore should be more welcoming to realists.

Antle here is making a common mistake, which is to arrange the goalposts so that Iraq becomes the prism through which foreign-policy wisdom is measured. This makes sense, because outside of Iraq realists have been wrong on the great foreign-policy challenges of the day. In the Middle East, the realist vision of “stability” lies in smoldering ruins, with nearly 200,000 dead in Syria alone, power-grabs and counter-coups in the rest of the region, and American allies–and thus American strategic imperatives–at risk.

And that does not even cover Russia, on which the realists have fully humiliated themselves. Just today, in fact, the New York Times has another story on Russia violating a key Cold War-era missile treaty. American officials knew this was the case when they negotiated another missile treaty with Russia, New START. Realists pimped New START, hawks warned Putin could not be trusted. The hawks were right, just as they were right about Putin’s designs on regional power, his threat to Europe, and his willingness to outright invade any non-NATO countries in his near-abroad. Realists have beclowned themselves on the issue. They are certainly welcome in the conservative movement and to ply their wares; they just shouldn’t be surprised if, since their credibility is shot, no one’s buying.

Other realists, such as those of the Walt-Mearsheimer variety, have taken to believing in the “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theory of powerful, disloyal Jews setting American policy according to Israel’s needs. They often claim they have nothing against Israel, it’s just that the relationship with Israel is no longer a strategic two-way street. In other words, these realists are arguing not that they have an irrational bias against Israel, but that they are morons. (They make a compelling case.)

So if realists can’t hit the broad side of a barn on the Middle East or Russia, and clearly don’t understand the basics of geostrategic calculation, it’s not too surprising that they are not immediately back in leadership positions. Perhaps they are rusty, but they are not ready for prime time.

Antle is intellectually capable of grappling seriously with the arguments of those who favor a robust American engagement with the world. Here’s hoping that at some point he–and Senator Paul’s circle of supporters, paleocon writers, and realists hoping to rehabilitate their tattered reputations–will do so.

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Has Rand Paul’s Moment Passed?

This should be the moment when Senator Rand Paul’s rise to the top of the list of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls should be halted. With foreign terror threats like ISIS that have grown precisely because of an American attempt to disengage from the Middle East, Paul’s neo-isolationist approach has been exposed as hopelessly shortsighted. But the Kentucky senator’s featured appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday revealed him to be, if anything, more confident than ever about his 2016 chances. Is he right?

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This should be the moment when Senator Rand Paul’s rise to the top of the list of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls should be halted. With foreign terror threats like ISIS that have grown precisely because of an American attempt to disengage from the Middle East, Paul’s neo-isolationist approach has been exposed as hopelessly shortsighted. But the Kentucky senator’s featured appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday revealed him to be, if anything, more confident than ever about his 2016 chances. Is he right?

Paul scored a public relations coup by getting NBC to send a camera crew and reporter to Guatemala to observe him performing free eye surgeries. This kind of publicity is priceless as was the opportunity to draw attention to the senator’s grandstanding on the border crisis while in Central America. He also got the chance to lambaste the government’s sending of heavy weaponry to local police departments that was highlighted by events in Ferguson, Missouri. But the headline of the segment was his boast that the American public now agrees more with him about foreign policy than mainstream Republicans or even Democrats like Hillary Clinton who rightly say that what’s happening in Iraq is the result of the Obama administration’s failure to act in Syria before groups like ISIS had the chance to get going:

I think the American public is coming more and more to where I am, and that those– people, like Hillary Clinton, who, she fought her own war, Hillary’s War, you know, people are gonna find that, and I think that’s what scares the Democrats the most, is that in a general election, were I to run, there’s gonna be a lot of independents and even some Democrats who say, “You know what, we are tired of war. We’re worried that Hillary Clinton will get us involved in another Middle Eastern war, because she’s so gung-ho.”

If you wanna see a transformational election in our country, let the Democrats put forward a war hawk like Hillary Clinton, and you’ll see a transformation like you’ve never seen.

In other words, Paul believes that Americans are so war weary from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that they are incapable of drawing conclusions from recent events. He’s not alone in thinking that. As Chris Cillizza noted in the Washington Post, a raft of polls taken earlier in the year all support the notion that Americans want a less aggressive foreign policy and are opposed to any further involvement in Middle East conflicts, like the potential wars that a “hawk” like Clinton might get the U.S. into.

Cillizza notes that these attitudes are far less popular among Democrats than Republicans, who, on the whole, remain faithful to their party’s traditional posture that deplores a more “narrow role in world affairs.” But, as Cillizza says, just because the GOP has been the standard bearer for a strong America in the recent past and Democrats the party of retreat, doesn’t mean that will always be the case.

But, as we have noted here before, Paul’s problem is that the Obama administration’s disastrous mistakes abroad have made it far less safe to assume that fears about terrorism and the decline of U.S. influence will no longer dictate attitudes about foreign affairs. While Clinton will, at least in theory, stand to benefit from being seen as someone who can implement a rational course correction from Obama’s path (so long as, that is, voters forget that she was his secretary of state for four years), Paul is actually offering an even more extreme version of Obama’s foreign-policy vision that has left the world a chaotic mess.

The crises in the Middle East in which Obama’s follies have played a not insignificant role in exacerbating conflicts in Gaza and Iraq and with the Russian assault on Ukraine proceeding may be just the start. Barring an unlikely complete transformation of the Obama administration over the course of the next two years, the odds are that America’s foreign-policy woes will grow rather than recede. That will make it harder to sell Republican primary voters, let alone the rest of the country, on Paul’s brand of isolationism. The unique moment in history in which an opening for a Republican who was actually to the left of Obama on foreign affairs may have already come to an end.

Nor, as I wrote here last week when discussing Paul’s efforts to present himself as a friend of Israel despite opposing aid to the embattled Jewish state, do polls give Republicans much reason to believe that there will be, as the senator says, a surge of young Democratic voters coming over to their side if Paul is the GOP candidate.

But mainstream Republicans who have observed the way the murder of James Foley and the general feeling of crisis have affected the public mood should not be too confident about Paul’s inability to win the nomination in 2016. As his clever stage management of the trip to Guatemala as well as past coups such as his drone filibuster in 2013 proved, the Kentucky senator is a formidable politician. His willingness to reach out to groups that have little reason to back him such as blacks, Hispanics, and supporters of Israel does more than show his ambition to expand the base of extremist libertarians. It illustrates a political vision that seeks to establish him as a genuine front-runner and plausible option for president.

It is far too early to project how this will play out in 2016. But the point here is that Paul’s ability to generate positive press from even the liberal mainstream media just at the moment when his views about the world are being discredited by events ought to scare his potential opponents. The follies of the Obama presidency may make it safe for conservatives to espouse their traditional support for a strong foreign policy in 2016 in a way that was harder to do in 2012. Yet anyone in the GOP who underestimates Rand Paul’s sheer political talent will be making a big mistake.

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Parsing Paul’s ‘Evolution’ on Aid to Israel

Has Senator Rand Paul’s “evolution” on support for Israel and aid to the Jewish state gone far enough? That’s the question the pro-Israel community is asking these days as the 2016 Republican presidential contender attempts to navigate a changed foreign-policy environment in the wake of recent events in the Middle East. But while some credible voices think he should be given credit for moving closer to Israel, skeptics about both his position shifts as well as his ability to bring vast numbers of young voters to his party still have the better argument.

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Has Senator Rand Paul’s “evolution” on support for Israel and aid to the Jewish state gone far enough? That’s the question the pro-Israel community is asking these days as the 2016 Republican presidential contender attempts to navigate a changed foreign-policy environment in the wake of recent events in the Middle East. But while some credible voices think he should be given credit for moving closer to Israel, skeptics about both his position shifts as well as his ability to bring vast numbers of young voters to his party still have the better argument.

One voice raised on behalf of giving Paul a chance to prove himself is Abby W. Shachter, the author of Acculturated, the indispensable cultural blog, who writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune that both left- and right-wing critics of Paul on Israel are mistaken. While acknowledging the doubts about Paul’s sincerity about being a friend of Israel, she thinks friends of Israel shouldn’t consider his longstanding opposition to foreign aid a disqualifying factor. As Shachter notes, his position on aid to Israel has evolved since he began public life as a supporter of his extremist libertarian father’s presidential candidacies. Paul now claims he’s never really advocated ending assistance to Israel and says that even if all foreign aid is eliminated, Israel should be last on the list to be cut and even voted this summer for additional funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system that has saved countless lives from death at the hands of Hamas missiles.

Even more significantly, the recent controversy over President Obama’s willingness to use aid as a lever to pressure Israel may make Paul’s position on the question more defensible. Many Israelis believe the president’s decision to halt ammunition sales and transfers to Israel at the height of the fighting in Gaza so as to force the Jewish state to buckle to his demands about a cease-fire should force their country to ponder whether the price of this aid is too high in terms of their independence and security. If so, then maybe Paul’s position should be regarded as actually one that is helping Israel rather than a threat to its well-being.

Shachter goes even further and cautions conservative friends of Israel to think long and hard about labeling the libertarian senator as a foe of the Jewish state. She believes his ability to bring more young voters to the GOP has caused Democrats to fear him more than other Republicans. If Paul is spurned, she fears Republicans will rue the day they repelled the youth/libertarian voters that support the Kentucky senator, especially if they back libertarian or fringe candidates in November 2016.

But I’m afraid Shachter is giving Paul too much credit for both his “evolution” on the Middle East and his ability to help Republicans win in 2016.

Let’s first understand that Paul’s attempt to spin his record on Israel is blatantly insincere. If the senator has moved far closer to mainstream views on Israel since his presidential ambitions became manifest, that also illustrates just how far he has had to come from his starting point as a supporter of his father’s hostile attitude toward the Jewish state and the need for a strong American position on the Middle East. While he never explicitly singled out Israel for aid cutoffs, it’s also true that he has always opposed any assistance, a position that he still maintains to a large degree.

It is also true that many friends of Israel are rethinking the value of aid since Obama has used the assistance to pressure Israel to adopt policies that are against its interests. Paul is right when he says Israel would be better off if it were not dependent on the United States for military aid. But the problem is that even after the disheartening spectacle of Washington betraying its sole democratic ally in the Middle East in this manner, Israel doesn’t really have an alternative to this aid, no matter how many strings come with it.

The plain fact is that while Israel has a thriving arms industry of its own, if it is to maintain its qualitative edge over its Arab and Muslim foes, it’s going to need continued help from the United States. Without U.S. funding (started under the George W. Bush administration and continued under Obama), the Iron Dome system would not have been deployed as quickly or in the numbers needed to stop Hamas’s rocket offensive this year. Iron Dome might be the most prominent example of the utility of U.S. military assistance, but it is not the only one. Like it or not, Israel needs U.S. weapons and ammunition, especially when it is forced into shooting wars where resupply of stocks becomes necessary. Seen in that context, Paul’s rhetoric about aid cutoffs being to Israel’s benefit is beside the point, if not completely insincere.

Nor does Paul’s opposition to aid make sense even from a strictly American viewpoint. The U.S. has always gained nearly as much from security cooperation with Israel as the recipients. The U.S. not only benefits from Israeli technology and intelligence but the money is almost entirely spent in the United States. The assistance given is as much aid to the U.S. arms industry as it is to Israel.

As for Paul’s ability to bring in hordes of youthful libertarians who can tip the balance in 2016, that may be more of a myth than anything else. As Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog noted earlier this week, polls give us no evidence of any potential for such a massive swing vote. Young liberals may like Paul’s foreign policy, but not much else about the libertarian. But that shouldn’t recommend him to Republicans because the only reason they do like him is that his views are actually to the left of President Obama’s generally weak posture on foreign and defense issues. Even so, there is little evidence that liberals will back a conservative libertarian for president. Nor is it likely that any defection of libertarians, who have been hostile to every GOP presidential nominee for a generation, would be enough to cost Republicans the presidency.

Thus, while Paul should be encouraged to continue to evolve, his position on Israel is still unsatisfactory. More to the point, his position on aid reflects an even greater desire for an American retreat from the Middle East than that of Obama. In the unlikely event that his views truly change, pro-Israel conservatives should give him a chance. Until then, they would do well to seek an alternative that will both support Israel and have a better chance of being elected president.

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Obama’s Failures Once Helped Rand Paul; Are They Now Impeding Him?

It might be better to be lucky than good, but so far Rand Paul has been both. His political skill has been clearest in his attempts to build coalitions within the GOP and conservative movement (with Democrats too, but they won’t play much of a role in helping him win the GOP nomination): his marathon filibuster attracted support from less vocal critics of domestic surveillance; his outreach to the Jewish community has allayed some concerns about his approach to Israel; and he has been a strong voice for a pro-life libertarianism.

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It might be better to be lucky than good, but so far Rand Paul has been both. His political skill has been clearest in his attempts to build coalitions within the GOP and conservative movement (with Democrats too, but they won’t play much of a role in helping him win the GOP nomination): his marathon filibuster attracted support from less vocal critics of domestic surveillance; his outreach to the Jewish community has allayed some concerns about his approach to Israel; and he has been a strong voice for a pro-life libertarianism.

Luck has been at his side as well. Events tend to shape elections, though it’s not always clear just how much. (The 2008 financial crash probably didn’t cost John McCain the election to Barack Obama, but it certainly didn’t help. The Russia-Georgia war of that year was expected to be helpful to McCain, but it didn’t provide any noticeable bounce.) There’s no question, however, that current events during Rand Paul’s first term in the Senate have been in his wheelhouse.

The NSA scandal, a botched undeclared war in Libya, bureaucratic belly flops like the ObamaCare exchange, and abuse-of-power scandals like the IRS targeting have all helped Paul and his supporters make the case that the government needs to be reined in. Back in December, a Gallup poll found a record high percent of Americans consider big government to be a bigger threat to the country than big business or big labor. And last February, Pew found that for the first time in decades a majority of Americans considered the federal government to be a threat to their rights and freedoms.

And then, like any story about conservatives that is years old, the New York Times even caught on, publishing a magazine essay last week asking: “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?” The story ran a cover photo of Rand Paul.

Paul’s luck was bound to run out eventually, and just as he could thank President Obama’s string of domestic failures and abuses for his momentum, so too can he rue Obama’s colossal foreign-policy failures for the fact that events have reversed the tide on him. The Lightbringer giveth, the Lightbringer taketh away.

A stable global order is a great time to be a noninterventionist. The Age of Obama, alas, is not. President Obama’s attempt to pull America back from a tenuous global balance was a bit like the would-be amateur magician’s first attempt to pull the tablecloth away without disturbing the plates and glassware. It wasn’t really thought through, and everything came crashing down.

And so we find ourselves going back into Iraq and trying to put out the fires Obama and John Kerry started elsewhere in the Middle East. Even Hillary Clinton has abandoned her former boss, joining with the interventionists to try to restore some order and push back the advance of terror pseudostates. What say you, Rand Paul? The senator, after a few days of silence, offered his thoughts on the airstrikes to push back ISIS in Iraq:

“I have mixed feelings about it. I’m not saying I’m completely opposed to helping with arms or maybe even bombing, but I am concerned that ISIS is big and powerful because we protected them in Syria for a year,” Paul said.

Paul has cemented himself as one of the leading potential Republican 2016 presidential candidates with a libertarian brand of conservatism that includes skepticism of foreign military intervention. However, he was initially conspicuously silent on the airstrikes and did not respond to requests to comment on the issue from multiple media outlets including Business Insider.

Along with implying ISIS grew because the U.S. did not back other groups in the fighting in Syria, Paul pointed out some of the same foreign policy hawks who support the current airstrikes also wanted to launch military operations against Assad.

“Do you know who also hates ISIS and who is bombing them? Assad, the Syrian government. So a year ago, the same people who want to bomb ISIS wanted to bomb Syria last year,” said Paul. “Syria and ISIS are on opposite sides of the war. We’re now bombing both sides of one war that has spread into another country.”

Paul said the examples of Syria and ISIS show why some Americans might want a more “moderate” foreign policy.

In addition to not really answering the question (though we can certainly allow for some nuance), Paul seems to suggest that lack of intervention in Syria helped create this crisis, which apparently is a case for less intervention. Also, he senses hypocrisy in those who want to intervene against ISIS and also against Assad while Assad is fighting ISIS too.

Yet the point only really holds if those are the only two sides in the dispute. They’re not. There are also non-ISIS, non-Assad aligned forces. In seeking to help the Kurds and save the Yazidis in Iraq, for example, we’re not actively allying ourselves with Assad next door. We’re trying to do two things simultaneously: prevent genocide and build up the defensive capabilities of an American-aligned minority enclave in Kurdistan. Those who support intervention believe we have a responsibility to our allies and would gain strategically by strengthening a proxy that could shoulder some of the burden during our period of retrenchment.

That may or may not be correct ultimately (I think it is, and I think our experience with Israel and Jordan shows the potential). But I don’t think Paul comes off as being comfortable at all with this debate. Perhaps his luck has run out, or maybe it’s on temporary leave. But foreign policy has reasserted itself, and with two years left in Obama’s term, it’s likely to stick around.

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The Anti-Rand Paul GOP Primary

The 2014 midterms are months away but the 2016 Republican presidential race is already heating up–though on foreign policy, an issue that isn’t usually a significant factor. But while this debate is generating a fair amount of heat, the real competition isn’t really so much between Senator Rand Paul, the leader of the libertarian wing of the GOP, as it is between those seeking to assume the leadership of those who are determined to stop the Kentucky senator.

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The 2014 midterms are months away but the 2016 Republican presidential race is already heating up–though on foreign policy, an issue that isn’t usually a significant factor. But while this debate is generating a fair amount of heat, the real competition isn’t really so much between Senator Rand Paul, the leader of the libertarian wing of the GOP, as it is between those seeking to assume the leadership of those who are determined to stop the Kentucky senator.

That’s the upshot of a pair of dueling op-ed articles published this week in which Texas Governor Rick Perry and Paul laid out their respective positions on foreign policy. Perry pulled no punches in an article published in the Washington Post last Friday as he labeled Paul an “isolationist.” Perry rightly pointed out that the positions Paul advocates would weaken America’s defense and standing around the world even more than President Obama’s disastrous policies, especially as a terrorist threat becomes more pronounced in the Middle East.

Paul argued in a response published yesterday in Politico that he was a realist, not an isolationist. But he gave away the game by claiming the difference between them was about his unwillingness to order Americans into Iraq, a signal that he intends to stick to a stance in which the use of U.S. power, as well as its exercise of influence, would be shelved in a Paul presidency.

Paul’s advantage here is that he is the unchallenged spokesman for the growing isolationist spirit within the GOP and the nation. He has inherited his father’s extreme libertarian base and expanded with a slick appeal rooted in the post-Iraq and Afghanistan war weariness. That gives him a sizable chunk of Republican primary voters and accounts for the fact that early polls show him with a slim plurality in a large field of potential candidates.

But it doesn’t guarantee Paul the nomination. To the contrary, though Paul is a formidable contender, there’s no reason to believe that the party that has championed strong defense and foreign policies for generations is morphing into the sort of organization where an extremist like Ron Paul, or even his son, who espouse foreign-policy views that are arguably to the left of Obama, speaks for the majority.

But Paul could succeed if the candidates who espouse mainstream GOP views on foreign policy siphon support from each other and allow him to slip through to victory. That’s why the fiercest fight in the upcoming campaign will not be between Paul and those who disagree with him but in the virtual primary as Republican foreign-policy hawks seek to claim the mantle as the anti-Paul candidate.

This will be especially important because although most voters will always be more concerned about the economy and domestic issues, the differences between the candidates on most of the other issues will be minimal. As things stack up now, other than immigration reform, foreign policy may be the only point on which there are significant differences among the Republicans.

Who will be competing in the anti-Paul primary?

The first name that comes to mind is Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor’s decision to remind voters of his opposition to gay marriage made it clear that he’s still interested in running for president despite his ongoing Bridgegate troubles. And he fired a shot across Paul’s bow last year on the question of intelligence gathering that indicated a willingness to stake out ground to the libertarian’s right on defense policy. But Christie is still regarded by many in the grass roots as a moderate who will have problems drawing support from a party that has shifted to the right. More to the point, his expertise on foreign affairs appears to be minimal. While no one should underestimate Christie in a fight, this is not a man who is likely to gain any advantages by speaking about non-domestic or economic issues.

The other principal contender for the title of anti-Paul is Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Rubio has spent the last year giving speeches on foreign affairs and has the chops to make a strong case for himself as the most able spokesman of his generation for a strong American foreign policy. Based on his statements, Rubio is a clear choice to be the leading advocate for a strong America in his generation. But the jury is still out on whether Rubio can overcome a poor 2013 in which conservatives attacked him on immigration and Paul and Ted Cruz won the affection of the Tea Party (a group that once regarded him as a favorite).

There are others who would like use foreign policy to emerge from the pack of GOP candidates. Outliers like former ambassador John Bolton and Rep. Peter King want to run on foreign policy but neither seems capable anything more than a symbolic candidacy. 2012 runner-up Rick Santorum has the expertise learned during years in the Senate and would give Paul a run for his money by articulating the case for stopping Iran and not allowing Islamists or the Russians to run the U.S. out of the Middle East. But while it would be foolish to underestimate Santorum (as I and just about everyone else did in 2012), he still looks right now to be a second-tier candidate until the contrary is proven.

There is also the possibility that someone else, such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, will emerge as a rival to Paul. But Walker must first win reelection and then must articulate some strong positions on foreign policy, something that so far he has not done.

It is into that confusing array of contenders that Perry is seeking to inject himself. Perry’s disastrous 2012 run would have seemed to eliminate him from future consideration but after his very good week showing up Barack Obama on illegal immigration, the Texas governor seems to be a much more serious contender now than he did only a few weeks ago.

Perry doesn’t know as much about foreign policy as Rubio, Santorum, Bolton, or King and anyone who remembers his debate performances the last time around must regard his 2016 hopes as a long shot at best. But in contrast to his late start last time around, Perry is going in hard this time and seems better prepared. Moreover, by seeking to establish himself as the heir to the Reagan wing of the GOP (as opposed to Paul’s seeming effort to channel the spirit of Robert A. Taft, the isolationist champion of the 1940s), Perry has correctly targeted an issue that could give him a leg up in a battle that is only just starting.

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Rand Paul, the GOP’s Anti-Reagan

In an illuminating essay for National Journal, Michael Gerson writes about the foreign-policy debate roiling the GOP. Going back to Dwight Eisenhower’s victory over Robert Taft in 1952, Gerson points out that since that moment the GOP has been an internationalist party.

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In an illuminating essay for National Journal, Michael Gerson writes about the foreign-policy debate roiling the GOP. Going back to Dwight Eisenhower’s victory over Robert Taft in 1952, Gerson points out that since that moment the GOP has been an internationalist party.

There have been differences for sure–most notably Ronald Reagan’s challenge of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s policy of détente, with Reagan embracing the roll-back of the Soviet empire–but they have all been differences among internationalists. Mr. Gerson argues that the rise of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul represents an effort by non-interventionists to remake the core national-security doctrine of the GOP. Gerson quotes George Mason Professor Colin Deuck, who says of Paul’s approach: “This is not just a rejection of Bush 43. It goes way beyond Reagan versus Nixon. It is an attempt to undo the Eisenhower administration, which locked Republicans into an internationalist stance.”

Mr. Gerson highlights Senator Paul’s positions on various national-security issues:

The talented, ambitious Republican senator, with little background in foreign affairs, has proposed defense cuts, opposed the “perpetual war” against terrorism, questioned American troop deployments in Germany and South Korea, and sought to limit presidential authority over the use of force (urging, for example, the congressional deauthorization of the Iraq and Afghan wars)… Paul has systematically opposed the forward deployment of American influence: drone strikes, military engagement, and foreign assistance (which, he argues, encourages “lethargy” and “insolence”). Paul’s “constitutional foreign policy” denies the legal basis of the war on terrorism, would place severe constraints on the executive, and hints at the existence of an oppressive national security state.

The political and policy atmosphere of 2013—conflict fatigue, the Arab’s Spring’s frightening turn, public concerns about drone policy, revelations about NSA spying—could hardly have been more favorable to Rand Paul’s rise. It is particularly revealing what a leader says when he is on top of the world. During his 12-hour, 52-minute drone filibuster, Paul felt enough support and permission to make extraordinary claims about the potential misuse of presidential power. “That Americans could be killed in a café in San Francisco,” he said, “or in a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is an abomination.”

This was the perfect melding of domestic and foreign policy libertarianism—an assertion that the national security state might not only violate your privacy but also take your life during lunch. It was also a paranoid delusion. Taken as a serious argument, it would mean that the president of the United States can’t be trusted with advanced weaponry.

Senator Paul understands that his libertarian convictions are still out of step with many in the GOP, which is why he’s careful in how much he reveals, careful in the battles he chooses, and why he insists his views are Reaganesque (his latest effort can be found in his op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal).

Having worked in the Reagan administration and having read a great deal about Reagan and his presidency, it is risible for Paul to claim his philosophy mirrors Reagan’s. America’s fortieth president, among other things, was not drawn to bizarre conspiracies, which Paul can be. (For example, Paul accused Vice President Cheney of being in favor of the Iraq war because of his ties to Halliburton and warns that the NSA might soon “start using the GPS feature in your phone to track whether or not you go to gun shows.”) Rand Paul’s philosophy is much closer to his father Ron Paul’s than Reagan’s or, for that matter, Eisenhower’s.

Senator Paul, then, does not represent simply a different point on the GOP’s post-World War II foreign-policy continuum. He is a break from that tradition. Whether that is wise or not is open to debate. But Mr. Paul should at least have the courage of his libertarian convictions. Particularly if he decides to run for president in 2016, Paul should level with us about how radically different his foreign policy as president would be from those of the last six Republican presidents.

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Paul’s Isolationism Isn’t a Viable Alternative

In the last week the collapse in Iraq has re-ignited the debate over President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as well as President Obama’s to abandon it in 2011. That has allowed many liberals to return to their favorite pastime of bashing neoconservative advocates for the war and conservatives to excoriate an administration that decided to bug out of Iraq just at the point when the conflict seemed to have been won. Both of the last two presidents made mistakes in Iraq and these exchanges have left no one’s reputation intact. But for isolationists, this latest crisis is an opportunity for them to claim that they alone have avoided blame for both the bloody war that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein and the current battles in which much of the country appears to be falling into the hands of a Sunni coalition made up of al-Qaeda sympathizers and former Baathists.

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In the last week the collapse in Iraq has re-ignited the debate over President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as well as President Obama’s to abandon it in 2011. That has allowed many liberals to return to their favorite pastime of bashing neoconservative advocates for the war and conservatives to excoriate an administration that decided to bug out of Iraq just at the point when the conflict seemed to have been won. Both of the last two presidents made mistakes in Iraq and these exchanges have left no one’s reputation intact. But for isolationists, this latest crisis is an opportunity for them to claim that they alone have avoided blame for both the bloody war that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein and the current battles in which much of the country appears to be falling into the hands of a Sunni coalition made up of al-Qaeda sympathizers and former Baathists.

That’s the conceit of Senator Rand Paul’s op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal in which he joins the pile-on against both Bush and Obama. According to Paul, the main lesson to be derived from recent developments in Iraq is that anyone connected to or supportive of the original invasion as well as those who support the president’s disastrous retreat from the region need to admit their errors and cease advocating for what he considers to be failed policies. Fair enough. But once everyone who was for the war and also those who urged withdrawal say they’re sorry, what does the man who must be considered one of the frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 think the U.S. should do in Iraq now? The answer is apparently, not much. Paul seems to be skeptical about any action to try and push back against the ISIS advance, a position that may be wrong but is not irrational. Not unreasonably, he also believes any presidential decisions should seek authorization from Congress for any new initiative.

What is not reasonable is the context of Paul’s position. Though he continues to insist that what he is proposing is analogous to the policies carried out by Ronald Reagan, having opposed virtually every U.S. initiative in the Middle East, it is hard to see his proposal as anything but a prescription for U.S. abandonment of both its interests and allies in the Middle East. This may have some superficial appeal to war-weary Americans who have grown tired of dealing with the region’s problems. But doing so will neither enhance the nation’s security nor allow it to ignore the threats that regularly emerge to challenge it.

Paul’s harping on the idea of others admitting their mistakes is a not-so-subtle way of asserting that he has made none. It is true that he bears no responsibility for getting the U.S. into Iraq or for President Obama’s bungling of a war that the administration claimed had been successfully concluded in his first term. But to claim that simply staying out of Iraq would have avoided all the problems of a rising Islamist tide in the region is to miss the point of the events of the last few years. By passing on an early intervention in Syria that might have toppled the Assad regime and avoided having the country fall into the hands of Islamists, President Obama set in motion a chain of events that has not only left the country in ruins, created more than a million refugees, and left more than 100,000 dead. He also helped create the circumstances that have fueled the chaos in Iraq. In doing so, Obama was doing just as a President Paul would do, only with the pretense that he was actually in control of events as his “lead from behind” mantra tried to indicate.

It is one thing to advocate for the U.S. to adopt a Reaganesque stance of only using force when U.S. interests are directly threatened, as Paul counsels. But Paul’s consistent position is always for the U.S. to stay out of the fight against Islamist terrorists, no matter where they are or what they are doing. He opposes drone strikes on al-Qaeda leaders and even U.S. aid to regional allies like Israel as well as less friendly and stable countries. Though he couches his position in “realist” terms that evoke Republicans of the past, a Rand Paul foreign policy would signal a retreat from the defense of the U.S. interests that Ronald Reagan would never have countenanced. Far from being an alternative to the follies of both the last two presidents, Paul would take U.S. foreign policy far to the left of what most Republicans already rightly think is Obama’s retreat from the world stage.

There is clearly no appetite in the country now for a new commitment to ground combat in Iraq, but Paul’s isolationism represents a dangerous extension of Obama’s cut-and-run philosophy. Though foreign policy will always take a back seat to domestic concerns, as Republicans begin to think seriously about 2016 they need to start thinking about whether they really want a presidential candidate who wants to abandon America’s interests and allies even more than Obama has done.

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Should Rand Paul Embrace or Downplay the Libertarian Label?

About a year ago, Rand Paul made what may qualify as the prospective presidential candidate’s most defensive comment on his political ideology. “I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot,” Paul said according the Washington Post. “I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative.”

The comment was made in the context of Paul’s efforts to court evangelicals, but revealed a challenge posed by the “libertarian” label. Much of what is said about libertarians in the media is absurdly unfair. Like any political movement, there is a diverse range of opinion about what constitutes libertarianism and how libertarians might approach policy. (I don’t remember recently reading an editorial in Reason magazine, for example, advocating everyone “run around with no clothes on and smoke pot.”)

There is a fascinating debate among libertarians, for example, about abortion and whether the government should enforce the granting of individual rights to a person from the beginning of his life, or whether a person is granted those rights sometime after life begins. Instead of being asked about that, Paul gets told (according to the Post account) by voters that they like much of what he has to say but they hesitate to vote for him because they “don’t like legalizing heroin.”

But he consciously avoids ditching the label altogether. Just a few weeks ago, he offered a slightly different formulation: he’s “libertarian-ish.” His libertarian leanings, if that’s the right word, are not only genuine but also have their own political advantages. The same day CNN ran Paul’s “libertarian-ish” comment, the New York Times ran a prominent story headlined “Rand Paul and Wealthy Libertarians Connect as He Weighs Running.” It opened with a well-chosen anecdote:

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About a year ago, Rand Paul made what may qualify as the prospective presidential candidate’s most defensive comment on his political ideology. “I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot,” Paul said according the Washington Post. “I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative.”

The comment was made in the context of Paul’s efforts to court evangelicals, but revealed a challenge posed by the “libertarian” label. Much of what is said about libertarians in the media is absurdly unfair. Like any political movement, there is a diverse range of opinion about what constitutes libertarianism and how libertarians might approach policy. (I don’t remember recently reading an editorial in Reason magazine, for example, advocating everyone “run around with no clothes on and smoke pot.”)

There is a fascinating debate among libertarians, for example, about abortion and whether the government should enforce the granting of individual rights to a person from the beginning of his life, or whether a person is granted those rights sometime after life begins. Instead of being asked about that, Paul gets told (according to the Post account) by voters that they like much of what he has to say but they hesitate to vote for him because they “don’t like legalizing heroin.”

But he consciously avoids ditching the label altogether. Just a few weeks ago, he offered a slightly different formulation: he’s “libertarian-ish.” His libertarian leanings, if that’s the right word, are not only genuine but also have their own political advantages. The same day CNN ran Paul’s “libertarian-ish” comment, the New York Times ran a prominent story headlined “Rand Paul and Wealthy Libertarians Connect as He Weighs Running.” It opened with a well-chosen anecdote:

Frayda Levin, a New Jersey libertarian activist and former small-business owner, is a woman of many passions: promoting liberty, ending marijuana prohibition and opposing her state’s recent minimum-wage increase. But Ms. Levin has added another cause as well. At gala benefits for free-market research institutes and at fund-raisers for antitax groups, she has urged like-minded donors to help send Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, to the White House.

“I consider that one of my main goals,” said Ms. Levin, who has met with Mr. Paul several times and in February introduced him at a private conference in Florida hosted by the Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group. “I tell people he’s the Republican of the future. He’s got both the intellectual heft and the emotional understanding.”

A libertarian’s declaration that Paul is the “Republican of the future” is not just good for Paul, but arguably has benefits for the GOP as well. After all, popular libertarian candidates who want to run for president tend to leave the GOP and run on their own ticket. This is, electorally speaking, frustrating for Republicans and counterproductive for libertarians. As staunch libertarian Randy Barnett wrote in 2012, “The Libertarian Party’s effort will, if effective, attract more libertarian voters away from the candidate who is marginally less hostile to liberty, and help hand the election to the candidate who is more hostile to liberty.”

But a libertarian(ish) Republican, if effective, does the opposite: he can galvanize support for libertarian policy objectives without splintering the conservative coalition that remains the only hope of standing athwart the statist project yelling stop. But there’s a catch, and here’s where libertarians get justifiably put off by the right: the Republican Party wants someone like Paul to be just popular enough. It’s up to libertarians to convince the party that he should be the GOP’s standard bearer, and it’s not an easy sell.

Which raises the question: is it easier to make that sell if Paul embraces his libertarianism or downplays it? That will be one question the 2016 nomination race seeks to answer. It’s easy to see both sides of it. It’s possible that the GOP just isn’t ready to go full libertarian at the presidential level, and therefore downplaying his libertarian label in favor of a more conservative-Republican tag might settle some nerves. Yet it’s also possible that by avoiding the term “libertarian” Paul is implicitly reinforcing the idea that libertarianism is an idea whose time has yet to arrive, thus justifying the suspicions of the establishment.

But it’s also important to note that whatever Paul chooses to call himself, he has been branded a libertarian and that is how he will be viewed relative to the other candidates. That is, Paul has essentially emerged as the candidate for libertarians, whether or not he calls himself the libertarian candidate.

It is for that reason that the much-feared “establishment” is only a real threat to Paul in the primary if there is no consensus establishment candidate. The conservative grassroots will not, at least in significant numbers, choose Jeb Bush or Chris Christie over Rand Paul. Many non-libertarian conservatives would prefer Paul over a genuinely moderate candidate. So rather than an anyone-but-Paul movement coalescing against him, he would probably benefit from the reverse.

But what if Bush doesn’t run? Well then Paul has a problem, because the “establishment” will support someone, and there are many palatable candidates on offer. The governors, especially Scott Walker and Mike Pence, would probably easily compete with Paul for non-libertarian voters and get establishment backing. Marco Rubio is another candidate who would appeal to establishment figures but also many conservatives–though his support for comprehensive immigration reform presumably makes him less of a threat to Paul’s base of support.

In such a case, Paul’s best hope is to compete for the “constitutional conservative” label, not differentiate himself from it. He has less to lose if he’s up against a 2016 version of Mitt Romney. So is Paul a libertarian? The best guess right now is: It depends.

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The Tea Party Comes Into Its Own

The main takeaway from recent GOP primaries, which saw the victories of Nebraska’s Ben Sasse and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, was a continuation of a lesson conservatives have been learning the past few election cycles: the candidate matters. In the past, conservatives have often learned this by losing–see Todd Akin, Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, etc. Now they seem to be proving it by winning.

Slate’s John Dickerson is always worth reading, and he has another typically thoughtful piece today, asking “Why Is the GOP’s Civil War So Civil?” He notes, correctly, that the returns in North Carolina and Nebraska mean “the grassroots conservatives of the Tea Party and elites of the GOP establishment can both claim victories.” But I think it’s actually part of a larger trend that includes not just recent nominees but also the successful politicians the Tea Party has already elevated. Dickerson writes:

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The main takeaway from recent GOP primaries, which saw the victories of Nebraska’s Ben Sasse and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, was a continuation of a lesson conservatives have been learning the past few election cycles: the candidate matters. In the past, conservatives have often learned this by losing–see Todd Akin, Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, etc. Now they seem to be proving it by winning.

Slate’s John Dickerson is always worth reading, and he has another typically thoughtful piece today, asking “Why Is the GOP’s Civil War So Civil?” He notes, correctly, that the returns in North Carolina and Nebraska mean “the grassroots conservatives of the Tea Party and elites of the GOP establishment can both claim victories.” But I think it’s actually part of a larger trend that includes not just recent nominees but also the successful politicians the Tea Party has already elevated. Dickerson writes:

Nebraska is a safe Republican state. Perhaps the forces of the establishment would have jumped in more heavily if the march to the majority in the Senate were threatened. But that’s not a certainty. Sasse is no Christine O’Donnell or Richard Mourdock, two of the candidates often cited as being substandard. Sasse has political skill, an Ivy League education, and credentials as a Bush administration veteran. He will win the general election in the heavily red state and come to Washington as a Rand Paul or Ron Johnson type of senator—what used to be known as simply a good movement conservative.

The reference to Paul and Johnson (and an earlier one to Marco Rubio) provides a good opportunity to check in with the senators who were part of earlier successful Tea Party grassroots efforts. Johnson is far from a firebrand, and he has settled into the Senate nicely without expressing any interest (at least yet) in using it as a platform for a near-term presidential run. But even the ones considering a run for the presidency have–perhaps for that reason–paid a lot of attention to their tone lately as well.

Rubio’s an obvious one, having pushed for comprehensive immigration reform: “It’s really hard to get people to listen to you on economic growth, on tax rates, on healthcare if they think you want to deport their grandmother,” Rubio said after the 2012 election.

More recently, Paul–nobody’s idea of a RINO–did some tapdancing after trying to thread the needle on voter ID. “Everybody’s gone completely crazy on this voter ID thing,” Paul told the New York Times last week. “I think it’s wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it’s offending people.” After a bit of an uproar on the right, Paul explained himself to Sean Hannity (via Hot Air’s Allahpundit):

Like I say, I think both sides have made mistakes in…this issue. But it’s mainly in presentation and perception, not in reality. In the sense that, if Republicans are going to go around the country and this becomes a central theme and issue, you have to realize, rightly or wrongly, it is being perceived by some — and this is the point I was making and I think it’s still a valid point, that I’m trying to go out and say to African Americans ‘I want your vote and the Republican Party wants your vote’. If they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that showing their ID is an attempt to get them not to vote because they perceive it in the lineage of a time when it truly did happen through poll taxes and questioning to try and prevent people, if they perceive it that way, we have to be aware that the perception is out there and be careful about not so overdoing something that we further alienate a block of people we need to attract.

After posting that quote, Allahpundit remarked: “That’s basically the same rationale amnesty fans have used to justify comprehensive immigration reform.”

Perhaps, and it’s interesting to see Paul join Rubio in the group of Tea Party rising stars worrying aloud about perception as much as policy. But I think it’s more analogous to the disastrous town hall meetings congressional Republicans called to rally the base against the comprehensive immigration reform favored by then-President Bush (and John McCain). There are legitimate concerns about seeming to incentivize illegal immigration, but those town halls were an angry and, in some cases, offensive escalation of the party’s rhetoric toward immigrants.

In addition to Paul and Rubio, there’s Mike Lee’s thoughtful call for a renewed effort to fight poverty, and–though he’s in a slightly different category than the Tea Party senators–Scott Walker’s explanation of his governing philosophy in an interview with the Washington Examiner: “It’s a phrase I use often: Austerity is not the answer, reform is.”

The civility of the GOP’s “civil war” is part of a broader trend of the party’s conservatives adjusting to the fact they’re often addressing a national audience. That’s especially true for those planning a run for the presidency. Contrary to the left’s hopefully declarations that it has run its course, a Tea Party that vets its candidates and embraces governing is a political force that’s just warming up.

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The GOP and the Question of “Experience”

In a clever combination of concern-trolling and hypocrite-hunting, Politico has a story asking if youth and inexperience will be stumbling blocks on the path to the 2016 nominating contest for the GOP’s rising stars. Specifically, the story is concerned about Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. In trying to make the argument extend beyond “hey, these Republicans are inexperienced and so was Obama,” a bit of goalpost shifting is required:

Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio are each in first Senate terms. None has executive experience. Two are in their early 40s, and one is barely in his 50s. Like Obama before 2008, they have spent too little time in Washington to build a robust legislative portfolio. And yet, like Obama, each is viewed as a fresh-faced star in his party at a time when many voters are looking for something new.

If “robust legislative portfolio” is the standard, then sure. But both Paul and Rubio are more impressive senators than Obama was–especially Rubio, who passed comprehensive immigration reform despite his party being in the minority while Obama, as a senator, famously torpedoed immigration reform. And that might be because of those three GOP senators, only Cruz would be as inexperienced on Election Day as Obama was in 2008. Additionally, it’s pretty silly to compare Rubio, who has been at the forefront of manifold policy reform efforts of late, with Obama, who worked as hard on equivocation as Rubio, Paul, and Cruz do at taking a stand on principle.

It also has much to do with contrast. The GOP ran two nominees against Obama, John McCain and Mitt Romney. The former had experience in war and in the Congress, the latter in the private sector. Obama had neither, so it’s not surprising that the GOP highlighted that difference in the general election. But the conservative grassroots don’t feel the same way, and they were unhappy with both of those GOP nominees. And that’s why this is less of an issue in the primary. As Politico writes:

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In a clever combination of concern-trolling and hypocrite-hunting, Politico has a story asking if youth and inexperience will be stumbling blocks on the path to the 2016 nominating contest for the GOP’s rising stars. Specifically, the story is concerned about Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. In trying to make the argument extend beyond “hey, these Republicans are inexperienced and so was Obama,” a bit of goalpost shifting is required:

Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio are each in first Senate terms. None has executive experience. Two are in their early 40s, and one is barely in his 50s. Like Obama before 2008, they have spent too little time in Washington to build a robust legislative portfolio. And yet, like Obama, each is viewed as a fresh-faced star in his party at a time when many voters are looking for something new.

If “robust legislative portfolio” is the standard, then sure. But both Paul and Rubio are more impressive senators than Obama was–especially Rubio, who passed comprehensive immigration reform despite his party being in the minority while Obama, as a senator, famously torpedoed immigration reform. And that might be because of those three GOP senators, only Cruz would be as inexperienced on Election Day as Obama was in 2008. Additionally, it’s pretty silly to compare Rubio, who has been at the forefront of manifold policy reform efforts of late, with Obama, who worked as hard on equivocation as Rubio, Paul, and Cruz do at taking a stand on principle.

It also has much to do with contrast. The GOP ran two nominees against Obama, John McCain and Mitt Romney. The former had experience in war and in the Congress, the latter in the private sector. Obama had neither, so it’s not surprising that the GOP highlighted that difference in the general election. But the conservative grassroots don’t feel the same way, and they were unhappy with both of those GOP nominees. And that’s why this is less of an issue in the primary. As Politico writes:

While Obama’s meteoric ascent to the White House may give each of the Republican senators hope, a relatively thin résumé can be a major liability, especially when the field could include current and former governors, such as Jeb Bush of Florida or Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who can claim executive experience.

In addition, the GOP has a long track record of nominating presidential candidates with established national profiles who are seen as next in line — whether it was Mitt Romney, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan.

You can see the problem here. The GOP is moving away from next-in-linism anyway, but even if it weren’t, who would be the next in line? Arguably Paul Ryan, a 44-year-old member of the House. As for the field of governors, this is where Politico makes a good point–though the grassroots seem pretty energetically opposed to Jeb Bush, so his inclusion on that list makes less sense.

Indeed, the point is stronger if you exclude Jeb. Including Bush would make it easier for conservative voters to stay away from the “establishment” candidate. Taking Bush out of the lineup blurs the distinction a bit. If anything, the conservative grassroots have been too instinctively suspicious of (congressional) experience. Witness, for example, the quote Paul’s advisor gave Politico: “We have had great presidents who were governors, and terrible presidents who have been governors. Often the problem with senators who run for office is not that they haven’t been here long enough, it’s the exact opposite: Too often, they have been in Washington too long.”

The sense of entitlement is something the Tea Party has fought to root out of the party, and rightly so. The tendency to primary sitting congressmen has been a key expression of this, and a Jeb Bush candidacy would be its perfect target in 2016. But if Bush doesn’t run, the Politico argument is stronger. Neither Scott Walker nor Mike Pence is an establishment figure, certainly not the way Chris Christie was shaping up to be.

Although Pence has among the best resumes of the prospective candidates, I’m not sure his time as governor will have nearly the impact on the conservative electorate that Walker’s would, since Walker’s successful battle against the public unions became a national story and thus a cause célèbre, resulting even in a recall campaign against him–which he won as well.

The “experience” argument on its own almost certainly isn’t a game changer. But if the contest doesn’t include Jeb or Christie, a candidate with executive experience could also be a candidate with appeal to the base, making experience more valuable as a possible tie breaker. But throw in a genuinely moderate establishment candidate, and it could make the experience argument less, not more attractive to the base.

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Is Rubio the Establishment’s Best Bet?

Yesterday Senator Marco Rubio made it clear on ABC’s This Week that he is seriously considering running for president in 2016. That Rubio’s been thinking about the presidency isn’t a secret. After a brutal 2013 in which his presidential prospects took a precipitous decline, the chaotic nature of the GOP race and the increasing importance of foreign policy has brought him back into the limelight. But if his chances are no better—and no worse—than just about any of the other prospective 2016 candidates, what’s really fascinating about the confident manner with which he’s promoting his candidacy is that his path to the nomination runs primarily through a Republican establishment that he once challenged.

Though he started out as a Tea Party challenger to the establishment’s choice for a Florida Senate seat, Rubio’s mainstream views on foreign policy, embrace of immigration reform, as well as his tough opposition to the Obama administration on host of other domestic issues have transformed him from an outsider to one of the people who may be hoping to fill the insider slot in the 2016 primaries. With Chris Christie heavily damaged by Bridgegate, Jeb Bush still big a question mark, and other possibilities such as Governors Scott Walker and Mike Pence not certain to run, if you’re going to handicap the race this far out, Rubio has to be considered as having a reasonable chance of being the Republican who will emerge from the early primaries as the establishment’s best hope of stopping Rand Paul. Seen in that light, Rubio’s announcement of readiness is a smart move that could set in motion a train of events that will see him inheriting the mantle of the party’s hopes for 2016.

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Yesterday Senator Marco Rubio made it clear on ABC’s This Week that he is seriously considering running for president in 2016. That Rubio’s been thinking about the presidency isn’t a secret. After a brutal 2013 in which his presidential prospects took a precipitous decline, the chaotic nature of the GOP race and the increasing importance of foreign policy has brought him back into the limelight. But if his chances are no better—and no worse—than just about any of the other prospective 2016 candidates, what’s really fascinating about the confident manner with which he’s promoting his candidacy is that his path to the nomination runs primarily through a Republican establishment that he once challenged.

Though he started out as a Tea Party challenger to the establishment’s choice for a Florida Senate seat, Rubio’s mainstream views on foreign policy, embrace of immigration reform, as well as his tough opposition to the Obama administration on host of other domestic issues have transformed him from an outsider to one of the people who may be hoping to fill the insider slot in the 2016 primaries. With Chris Christie heavily damaged by Bridgegate, Jeb Bush still big a question mark, and other possibilities such as Governors Scott Walker and Mike Pence not certain to run, if you’re going to handicap the race this far out, Rubio has to be considered as having a reasonable chance of being the Republican who will emerge from the early primaries as the establishment’s best hope of stopping Rand Paul. Seen in that light, Rubio’s announcement of readiness is a smart move that could set in motion a train of events that will see him inheriting the mantle of the party’s hopes for 2016.

In the last 18 months, Rubio has demonstrated just how perilous it can be to be anointed as a future president. In the aftermath of the 2012 presidential election Rubio was dubbed “The Republican Savior” by TIME magazine because of his youth, his Hispanic identity, and the fact that he represented a fresh face in a party that was desperately in need of a makeover. With impeccable conservative credentials on the issues and close ties to the Tea Party movement that he had championed in Florida against the quintessential GOP moderate Charlie Crist, Rubio seemed to be a computer model of what Republicans needed.

But after beginning 2013 as a punch line after his comic dive for a water bottle during his official response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address, his stock quickly went downhill. The rise of Paul and Cruz illustrated that he had been eclipsed among Tea Partiers. The increasing willingness of many on the right to embrace Paul’s brand of isolationism also seemed to show that Rubio’s positions in favor of traditional GOP beliefs in a strong defense and engagement with the world against Islamist terror might no longer be popular on the right.

However, the biggest problem was Rubio’s decision to join a bipartisan coalition to solve the immigration mess. Rubio’s presence in the group forced it to accept a tough border enforcement element, but his acceptance of a path to citizenship provoked outrage on the right where anything other than support for deportation for illegals is viewed as heresy. Rubio’s immigration gambit was meant to demonstrate his leadership capabilities as well as his ability to compromise. And he was, and still is, absolutely right to assert that the real “amnesty” is what is going on now as 12 million illegals who are not going to be deported remain here but in a legal limbo. But it doomed any hope that Tea Partiers would back his candidacy and there are many on the right who will never back him because of it.

However, the failure of that bill has, perversely, helped Rubio come back in 2014. With immigration off the table for the near and perhaps even foreseeable future, the senator doesn’t have to keep arguing about an issue that many conservatives won’t budge on. With the crises in Ukraine and the collapse of the Middle East peace process as well as the ongoing debate about Iran’s nuclear program, suddenly Rubio’s tough foreign-policy stance makes him look a lot more marketable. There is a clear opening for a traditional Republican foreign-policy candidate to oppose Paul’s isolationism and marginal would-be contenders like Peter King and John Bolton won’t fill it.

The one big obstacle to Rubio’s hopes is Jeb Bush. If the son and brother of former presidents does run, he will likely snatch up all the establishment support Rubio needs, not to mention most of the senator’s own Florida backers. But if Bush doesn’t run, it’s easy to plot a scenario in which Rubio’s main competition for mainstream Republicans would be a severely compromised Christie and other less prominent Republicans who would be starting behind him in terms of fundraising. At that point, Rubio’s obvious strengths—youth, appeal to Hispanic voters, strong foreign-policy voice, fiscally conservative domestic policies, and willingness to play to the right on climate change—come back into play.

It remains to be seen whether much of the right will ever forgive him for a correct, if doomed, immigration proposal. But a year and a half before the primary fight really begins, you’d have to give him a fighting chance to be the man that establishment Republicans will look to if they want to stop a possible Rand Paul juggernaut in the spring of 2016.

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Aid Can’t Buy Israel’s Silence on Iran Deal

National Security Advisor Susan Rice was in Israel this week to brief Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the latest developments in the nuclear talks with Iran. In doing so Rice, who was accompanied by top U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman, said all the right things about the U.S.-Israel relationship as well as the nuclear threat from Iran. Rice assured Netanyahu that the U.S. was committed to stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons and also touted the value of the American aid flowing to Israel. As the Times of Israel reported:

Rice said that the new deal “will take our total investment in Iron Dome, which has saved countless of Israeli lives, to nearly $900 million, a sign of our continued commitment to Israel’s security.”

“Every American dollar spent on Israel’s security is an investment in protecting the many interests that our nations share. Whether that’s preventing rockets from terrorizing the Israeli people, defending against the growing ballistic missile threat in the region, or advancing our commitment to defend freedom and democracy,” she went on.

Rice is right about that, since the money spent on bolstering its ally’s defense capabilities enhances U.S. security interests. But as welcome as those words may be, they aren’t enough to allay Israeli concerns about the nuclear talks with Iran that resume next week. As Haaretz reported, Netanyahu emerged from a session with Rice repeating his concerns that the U.S. is being dragged into a “bad deal” with Iran. While the Western press discounts virtually anything the Israeli leader said on this topic, the plain fact remains that the impetus from both the Obama administration and its European allies that virtually all informed observers think will result in the deal they have been seeking will be one in which Iran is allowed to keep its centrifuges and go on enriching uranium. So long as that is true, Iran will remain weeks or, at best, months away from a nuclear weapon. Under these circumstances, Americans need to realize that the damage the negotiations with Iran are doing to Israel’s security cannot be erased by even the most generous grants from Washington.

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National Security Advisor Susan Rice was in Israel this week to brief Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the latest developments in the nuclear talks with Iran. In doing so Rice, who was accompanied by top U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman, said all the right things about the U.S.-Israel relationship as well as the nuclear threat from Iran. Rice assured Netanyahu that the U.S. was committed to stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons and also touted the value of the American aid flowing to Israel. As the Times of Israel reported:

Rice said that the new deal “will take our total investment in Iron Dome, which has saved countless of Israeli lives, to nearly $900 million, a sign of our continued commitment to Israel’s security.”

“Every American dollar spent on Israel’s security is an investment in protecting the many interests that our nations share. Whether that’s preventing rockets from terrorizing the Israeli people, defending against the growing ballistic missile threat in the region, or advancing our commitment to defend freedom and democracy,” she went on.

Rice is right about that, since the money spent on bolstering its ally’s defense capabilities enhances U.S. security interests. But as welcome as those words may be, they aren’t enough to allay Israeli concerns about the nuclear talks with Iran that resume next week. As Haaretz reported, Netanyahu emerged from a session with Rice repeating his concerns that the U.S. is being dragged into a “bad deal” with Iran. While the Western press discounts virtually anything the Israeli leader said on this topic, the plain fact remains that the impetus from both the Obama administration and its European allies that virtually all informed observers think will result in the deal they have been seeking will be one in which Iran is allowed to keep its centrifuges and go on enriching uranium. So long as that is true, Iran will remain weeks or, at best, months away from a nuclear weapon. Under these circumstances, Americans need to realize that the damage the negotiations with Iran are doing to Israel’s security cannot be erased by even the most generous grants from Washington.

The Rice visit encapsulated what has become a familiar Obama tactic to deal with the Israelis. The administration pressures Israel on the peace process with the Palestinians, sandbags them with selective and misleading leaks about those talks (as Martin Indyk did after the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative) and conducts negotiations with Iran that are clearly headed toward a deal that will leave Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure intact, a state of affairs that allows the Jewish state’s very existence to be subject to the ability of Washington to enforce an agreement with Iran that may be unenforceable. And after all that, the Israelis are supposed to cheer Obama and express gratitude because the administration has maintained the alliance and poured more money into vital projects like Iron Dome.

It should be understood that this weapons system is a key part of Israel’s defense strategy in dealing with the independent Palestinian state in all but name ruled by Hamas in Gaza. The strengthening of the security alliance with Israel merely maintains what other presidents began, but nevertheless Obama deserves credit for increasing the amounts spent on these projects.

When viewed in this context it is easy to understand why some Israelis are beginning to question the value of the massive aid that is given to them by the U.S. As Caroline Glick wrote in the Jerusalem Post last week when discussing the views of an isolationist like Senator Rand Paul who opposes all foreign aid including that given to Israel, while the help from the U.S. is important, it undercuts the country’s “strategic independence.”

Given the importance of weapons like Iron Dome that have only been made possible by American assistance, I’m not prepared to go as far as joining her in endorsing Paul’s anti-aid position. Israel still cannot afford to be cut off from U.S. military help if it is to maintain its qualitative edge over any combination of actual or potential foes. But neither should we accept Rice’s nice words about the U.S. “investment” as adequate compensation for the underhanded way in which Indyk has sandbagged Netanyahu, let alone the coming betrayal on Iran.

The administration seems to operate on the assumption that keeping the aid dollars flowing to Jerusalem covers a multitude of its sins even to the point of making up for an American push for détente with the vicious anti-Semitic and potentially genocidal regime in Tehran. But though he is wisely doing everything to not rise to Obama’s bait and to keep the daylight between Israel and the United States to a minimum, Netanyahu has to know that a tipping point may soon be coming in the balance between American aid and diplomatic treachery with Iran. It’s not clear what, if anything, Netanyahu will believe Israel is capable of doing in response to a “bad deal” with Iran up to and including a strike on the Islamist regime’s nuclear facilities before it is too late to stop their drive to a bomb. But whatever his decision might be, no one in Washington should labor under the illusion that Israeli acquiescence to an Iran deal can be bought with an anti-missile system even if some cash is thrown in on the side.

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Why Are We Talking About Lewinsky? Not Because of Conservatives.

Although Republicans often find themselves on the wrong end of media bias, they can take some comfort in the periodic reminders of just how much said media care for them, for their reputations, and for their electoral fortunes. That’s the only explanation for the near-constant free, unsolicited advice leaping from the pages of major newspapers, helpfully informing Republicans exactly what not to do.

This paternalistic instinct is reasserting itself as Monica Lewinsky returns to the spotlight. By now you’ve probably heard: Lewinsky penned a piece for the newest issue of Vanity Fair about her post-scandal recovery from the humiliation of being that intern. So, like it or not, Lewinsky is back in the news. What does this have to do with Republicans? Nothing yet–and the media would like it to stay that way. Here’s Chris Cillizza:

The one-time paramour of the sitting president of the United States is featured in Vanity Fair breaking her silence and telling her side of the story. Even though that story isn’t out yet, it’s already one of the most clicked-on pieces of content on the Internet.

The temptation for Republicans in all of this is obvious.  Hillary Clinton is the clear frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and an early favorite to keep the White House for her party.  Knocking Clinton back a bit has to be the focus of not just Republicans thinking about running for president in 2016 but of the entire GOP over these next months. Reopening one of the most lurid episodes in the history of the modern presidency would seem to be a no-brainer for the party.

“Seem” is the key word in that last sentence. Dig even slightly below the surface of the Lewinsky issue and you quickly see that Republicans would do well to stay as far away from it as possible.

Here’s the bizarre sentence in that piece of advice that should jump right off the screen at the reader: “Reopening one of the most lurid episodes in the history of the modern presidency would seem to be a no-brainer for the party.” We’re talking about Lewinsky not because Republicans want us to but because Lewinsky wants us to.

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Although Republicans often find themselves on the wrong end of media bias, they can take some comfort in the periodic reminders of just how much said media care for them, for their reputations, and for their electoral fortunes. That’s the only explanation for the near-constant free, unsolicited advice leaping from the pages of major newspapers, helpfully informing Republicans exactly what not to do.

This paternalistic instinct is reasserting itself as Monica Lewinsky returns to the spotlight. By now you’ve probably heard: Lewinsky penned a piece for the newest issue of Vanity Fair about her post-scandal recovery from the humiliation of being that intern. So, like it or not, Lewinsky is back in the news. What does this have to do with Republicans? Nothing yet–and the media would like it to stay that way. Here’s Chris Cillizza:

The one-time paramour of the sitting president of the United States is featured in Vanity Fair breaking her silence and telling her side of the story. Even though that story isn’t out yet, it’s already one of the most clicked-on pieces of content on the Internet.

The temptation for Republicans in all of this is obvious.  Hillary Clinton is the clear frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and an early favorite to keep the White House for her party.  Knocking Clinton back a bit has to be the focus of not just Republicans thinking about running for president in 2016 but of the entire GOP over these next months. Reopening one of the most lurid episodes in the history of the modern presidency would seem to be a no-brainer for the party.

“Seem” is the key word in that last sentence. Dig even slightly below the surface of the Lewinsky issue and you quickly see that Republicans would do well to stay as far away from it as possible.

Here’s the bizarre sentence in that piece of advice that should jump right off the screen at the reader: “Reopening one of the most lurid episodes in the history of the modern presidency would seem to be a no-brainer for the party.” We’re talking about Lewinsky not because Republicans want us to but because Lewinsky wants us to.

The only Republican who has really made this an issue was Rand Paul, when the senator brought up the scandal more than three months ago. But there’s an obvious reason Paul mentioned it:

Paul, a potential 2016 GOP presidential nominee, also said that the Democrats’ argument that Republicans are waging a “War on Women” by opposing coverage for birth control in Obamacare and by opposing abortion is undercut by the memory of Bill Clinton as a sexual predator.

“One of the workplace laws and rules that I think are good is that bosses should not prey on young interns in their office. And I think really the media seems to have given President Clinton a pass on this. He took advantage of a girl that was 20 years old and an intern in his office. There is no excuse for that, and that is predatory behavior….. Then they (Democrats) have the gall to stand up and say, ‘Republicans are having a war on women.’ ”

Indeed, Paul had the temerity to remind the public that the Democrats’ phony “war on women” narrative was completely and totally disingenuous. The party that worships Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, and others like them is not a party that cares a whit for the wellbeing of young women. It’s true that Paul probably didn’t need to keep bringing it up, but he also understood that he struck a nerve.

The war on women was relevant more to Bill than to Hillary. Bill Clinton gave the major speech at the Democratic National Convention renominating Obama on the same night that Sandra Fluke gave a stock “war on women” convention speech. The irony may have been lost on Democrats, but the contrast was pretty glaring. Either way, Paul’s purpose was not really to attack Hillary or even Lewinsky, but Bill Clinton and the entire dishonest Democratic establishment, which is what really bothered people.

There’s one other aspect of this worth mentioning. Not only did Vanity Fair publish Lewinsky’s dramatic return, but it’s liberal writers who want to talk about it–and tie it directly to Hillary. Here’s the New Republic declaring that “Monica Lewinsky Is the Perfect Person to Kick Off the Conversation About Hillary Clinton’s Presidency.” And here’s Slate’s Amanda Hess reminding readers how obsessively Maureen Dowd trashed Lewinsky at the time, and that Dowd seems positively elated to take more cheap shots at Lewinsky this time around, no doubt feeling the exhilaration of relevance for the first time since, well, probably since the last time she was trashing Lewinsky.

Those attacking Lewinsky are liberals; those desperate to use Lewinsky to talk about Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign are liberals; those actually defending Lewinsky from a predatory cad–those are conservatives. And that’s when liberals step in to tell them to pipe down.

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Cut off Aid to the Palestinian Authority? Just Enforce the Law.

Last week, Senator Rand Paul set off a furious debate by putting forward a bill that would cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority because of the decision by its leaders to conclude a unity pact with the Islamist terrorists of Hamas. But rather than reap the applause of Israel’s backers, his bill was opposed by AIPAC. Paul’s latest attempt to curry favor with Jews and other members of the pro-Israel community was excoriated by the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin and wound up failing in the Senate.

I thought Paul was wrong to blast AIPAC as betraying its mandate. I also think his isolationism and steadfast opposition to vital military aid to Israel calls into question his bona fides as the author of legislation he called the “Stand With Israel Act of 2014.” But I also disagreed with those who thought the libertarian was wrong to call into question the continued flow of U.S. taxpayer dollars to the PA. The basic flaw in America’s efforts to bolster the peace process from Bill Clinton’s day to the Obama era has been an unwillingness to make the Palestinians accountable for their actions.

But yesterday, Senators Marco Rubio and Mark Kirk provided a timely reminder as to why Paul’s bill was really unnecessary: an aid cutoff because of the Hamas alliance is already mandated by U.S. law.

As Rubio and Kirk wrote in a joint letter to Secretary of State John Kerry:

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Last week, Senator Rand Paul set off a furious debate by putting forward a bill that would cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority because of the decision by its leaders to conclude a unity pact with the Islamist terrorists of Hamas. But rather than reap the applause of Israel’s backers, his bill was opposed by AIPAC. Paul’s latest attempt to curry favor with Jews and other members of the pro-Israel community was excoriated by the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin and wound up failing in the Senate.

I thought Paul was wrong to blast AIPAC as betraying its mandate. I also think his isolationism and steadfast opposition to vital military aid to Israel calls into question his bona fides as the author of legislation he called the “Stand With Israel Act of 2014.” But I also disagreed with those who thought the libertarian was wrong to call into question the continued flow of U.S. taxpayer dollars to the PA. The basic flaw in America’s efforts to bolster the peace process from Bill Clinton’s day to the Obama era has been an unwillingness to make the Palestinians accountable for their actions.

But yesterday, Senators Marco Rubio and Mark Kirk provided a timely reminder as to why Paul’s bill was really unnecessary: an aid cutoff because of the Hamas alliance is already mandated by U.S. law.

As Rubio and Kirk wrote in a joint letter to Secretary of State John Kerry:

The Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006 sets detailed requirements for the continuation of U.S. assistance should Hamas be brought into the Palestinian Authority government. The law is very clear. If Hamas comes to have a role in governance, there must be public acknowledgment of the Jewish state of Israel’s right to exist as well as acceptance of all previous agreements the Palestinians have made with Israel, the United States, and the international community. The law also requires that demonstrable progress be made toward dismantling of Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure and purging of individuals with ties to terrorism. Moreover, Hamas would need to halt its anti-American and anti-Israel incitement. The bar is high because the stakes are high and we must make sure to stand firmly by what we have said. Failing to do so will diminish the credibility of the United States.

Rubio and Kirk are right. No new legislation is needed to make the Palestinians accountable. All that is needed is for the administration to start enforcing the law.

That it won’t do so is pretty much a given. The reason put forward by some in the pro-Israel community for keeping the flow of Uncle Sam’s cash to the PA is a reasonable one. They claim that Israel needs the PA to continue to exist. A collapse caused by the cutoff of Western funds would cause huge problems for the Israelis who always need a Palestinian interlocutor. Israel has no desire to directly interfere in the lives of West Bank Palestinians, most of whom are governed by the corrupt and incompetent PA. It also relies on security cooperation with PA forces to help keep a lid on terrorism, though it can be argued that the PA and its fearful leadership benefits even more from the relationship because the Israelis ensure that Hamas and/or Islamic Jihad can’t topple them as they did the Fatah government of Gaza in 2006.

But as Rubio and Kirk noted in their letter, the deal between Hamas and Fatah explicitly states not only that Hamas won’t disarm or cease support for terror and recognize Israel. Hamas believes the agreement forbids further security cooperation between the PA and Israel.

That pronouncement illustrates Prime Minister Netanyahu’s point about Abbas having to choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas. In his desire to flee Kerry’s peace talks rather than be maneuvered into signing a peace agreement he can’t enforce, Abbas has chosen the latter. And U.S. law dictates that consequences must follow.

The key point here isn’t so much about the money, though U.S. aid plays a vital role in keeping the PA kleptocracy afloat. Rather it is that for more than 20 years U.S. governments have been whitewashing and excusing Palestinian actions and defending those decisions by saying that holding the PA accountable is bad for peace, security, and stability. Just as the failure of Kerry’s initiative was due in no small measure to the refusal of the administration to tell the truth about Abbas—who was wrongly praised as a man of peace while Netanyahu was falsely blasted as intransigent—that led the Palestinian to believe that he could stall and then walk out of talks with impunity.

Until the U.S. government starts enforcing those consequences, their behavior will never change. Paul’s bill may have been a piece of unnecessary grandstanding and friends of Israel are right to be wary of an isolationist whose rise bodes ill both for the future of American foreign policy and the U.S.-Israel alliance. But the issue he highlighted is real and demands action that unfortunately won’t be forthcoming from Obama or Kerry. 

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Why are Kay Hagan and Rand Paul Backing the Same Dead Horse?

Over the weekend, as the New York Times reported, Senator Rand Paul hosted Rupert Murdoch at the Kentucky Derby. While we don’t know whether this interesting attempt by the 2016 presidential hopeful to ingratiate himself with the influential media mogul paid off, apparently neither of the two made any money at the track while betting on the ponies. The horse Paul was backing in the big race “died” in the last hundred yards, while Murdoch left Louisville saying that he had “contributed enough to Kentucky.” But Paul’s not done betting on horses that are probably not fated to win.

Yesterday he was in North Carolina campaigning for Greg Brannon, one of the candidates in the Republican senatorial primary. Paul has been fairly cautious in the past few years about trying to exercise influence in this manner but by showing up on the eve of today’s primary, rather than just mailing in an endorsement, he was gambling his reputation on the fortunes of a fellow libertarian who has been trailing frontrunner Thom Tillis by double digits throughout the race.

While there is little doubt about who will finish first tonight in North Carolina, Brannon is hoping to keep Tillis’s vote under the 40 percent mark. That would force a runoff to be held on July 15. As it happens, embattled Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan is hoping for the same outcome. A delay in selecting the GOP nominee would give her an important boost heading into the fall general-election campaign. That is why Hagan has been paying for ads trashing Tillis as a weak conservative who is soft on ObamaCare, a not-so-subtle effort to try and help Brannon, a candidate that is likely to be a much easier opponent for the Democrat. Thus, while Paul may be seeking to enhance his reputation as a conservative kingmaker who can help the Tea Party knock off a candidate who is identified with the Republican establishment, the net effect of his efforts may be to boost the chances of the Democrats holding onto the Senate in November.

If all this sounds familiar, it should.

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Over the weekend, as the New York Times reported, Senator Rand Paul hosted Rupert Murdoch at the Kentucky Derby. While we don’t know whether this interesting attempt by the 2016 presidential hopeful to ingratiate himself with the influential media mogul paid off, apparently neither of the two made any money at the track while betting on the ponies. The horse Paul was backing in the big race “died” in the last hundred yards, while Murdoch left Louisville saying that he had “contributed enough to Kentucky.” But Paul’s not done betting on horses that are probably not fated to win.

Yesterday he was in North Carolina campaigning for Greg Brannon, one of the candidates in the Republican senatorial primary. Paul has been fairly cautious in the past few years about trying to exercise influence in this manner but by showing up on the eve of today’s primary, rather than just mailing in an endorsement, he was gambling his reputation on the fortunes of a fellow libertarian who has been trailing frontrunner Thom Tillis by double digits throughout the race.

While there is little doubt about who will finish first tonight in North Carolina, Brannon is hoping to keep Tillis’s vote under the 40 percent mark. That would force a runoff to be held on July 15. As it happens, embattled Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan is hoping for the same outcome. A delay in selecting the GOP nominee would give her an important boost heading into the fall general-election campaign. That is why Hagan has been paying for ads trashing Tillis as a weak conservative who is soft on ObamaCare, a not-so-subtle effort to try and help Brannon, a candidate that is likely to be a much easier opponent for the Democrat. Thus, while Paul may be seeking to enhance his reputation as a conservative kingmaker who can help the Tea Party knock off a candidate who is identified with the Republican establishment, the net effect of his efforts may be to boost the chances of the Democrats holding onto the Senate in November.

If all this sounds familiar, it should.

By using her campaign treasury to undermine the most electable Republican, Hagan is taking a page out of Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill’s underhanded but very successful push to persuade her state’s Republican primary voters to nominate Rep. Todd Akin. That investment paid huge dividends when Akin became her opponent and wound up sinking his own candidacy as well as damaging Republicans around the country with his stupid comments about rape and pregnancy.

As for Paul’s push for Brannon, a victory for the GOP underdog in North Carolina would not only enhance his prestige within the party but also herald a comeback for a Tea Party movement that the national media has been trying to bury for the last year.

But Paul’s clear affinity for his fellow doctor and libertarian shouldn’t deceive conservatives who may be hoping that Brannon is another Ted Cruz who can topple a party favorite and then go on to easily win a Senate seat. Brannon has general-election disaster written all over him. While Hagan’s use of an out-of-context quote to make it appear that Tillis was for ObamaCare is deceptive, there’s no getting around the fact that, like Akin, Brannon is a liberal dream. His controversial comments about food stamps and, in particular, his unwillingness to disagree with a 9/11 truther brand him as an extremist who has no shot at beating a competitive, if vulnerable Democrat like Hagan.

While the key to Paul’s 2016 strategy is clearly to rally the Tea Party behind him, his decision to go all in on Brannon is a mistake. Unwittingly aiding Hagan won’t endear him to most North Carolina Republicans. If his candidate does force a runoff or even somehow wins the nomination that might be a victory that he, and fellow Republicans, would come to regret.

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