Commentary Magazine


Topic: Rand Paul

Was Rand Paul Wrong on Aid to the Palestinians? Not Entirely.

Something interesting happened in the Senate this week. Senator Rand Paul is someone who is not generally considered a great friend of Israel because of his knee-jerk isolationism that has led him as well as his far more extreme father to take stands that are antithetical to the U.S.-Israel alliance. But Paul just proposed something most ardent supporters of the Jewish state generally agree with: an aid cutoff to the Palestinian Authority to punish it for the decision to ally itself with Hamas terrorists. Yet AIPAC, the group that is synonymous with the pro-Israel community, wouldn’t support the bill.

That led Paul to go on Steve Malzberg’s Newsmax.com TV show yesterday to express his dismay at AIPAC in what must be considered an attempt to be more Catholic than the pope. His gibes had to sting, especially since most AIPAC supporters are also deeply critical of the PA. AIPAC wasn’t talking but was clearly pleased when Paul didn’t get unanimous consent to put forward his bill and it died on the Senate floor. However Jennifer Rubin, our former COMMENTARY colleague, didn’t pull any punches in her Washington Post blog denouncing Paul’s gesture as a “phony pro-Israel bill.”

Who’s right in this confused squabble? As difficult as it may be to unravel this tangle, the correct answer is all of them, at least in part. How is that possible? It’s complicated.

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Something interesting happened in the Senate this week. Senator Rand Paul is someone who is not generally considered a great friend of Israel because of his knee-jerk isolationism that has led him as well as his far more extreme father to take stands that are antithetical to the U.S.-Israel alliance. But Paul just proposed something most ardent supporters of the Jewish state generally agree with: an aid cutoff to the Palestinian Authority to punish it for the decision to ally itself with Hamas terrorists. Yet AIPAC, the group that is synonymous with the pro-Israel community, wouldn’t support the bill.

That led Paul to go on Steve Malzberg’s Newsmax.com TV show yesterday to express his dismay at AIPAC in what must be considered an attempt to be more Catholic than the pope. His gibes had to sting, especially since most AIPAC supporters are also deeply critical of the PA. AIPAC wasn’t talking but was clearly pleased when Paul didn’t get unanimous consent to put forward his bill and it died on the Senate floor. However Jennifer Rubin, our former COMMENTARY colleague, didn’t pull any punches in her Washington Post blog denouncing Paul’s gesture as a “phony pro-Israel bill.”

Who’s right in this confused squabble? As difficult as it may be to unravel this tangle, the correct answer is all of them, at least in part. How is that possible? It’s complicated.

Let’s state upfront that Paul’s objectives here are to:

a. Seize any opportunity to cut any kind of foreign aid, a cost-effective measure that the isolationist from Kentucky opposes in principle and which enables him to pander to the large group of Americans who also dislike the idea of sending money abroad, especially to unsavory types like Abbas; and

b. Pander to pro-Israel Jewish voters and donors in preparation for his expected 2016 run for president.

Whether one considers Paul to be sincere in his professions of friendship for Israel or not, attacking aid to the PA is an easy way to achieve both objectives and distract Americans from the fact that he also opposes the vital aid that Israel gets to maintain its qualitative military edge over its enemies.

Rubin explains the opposition to the cutoff as something that is both reasonable and linked to Israel’s interests. Quoting the insightful Elliott Abrams, she explains that pulling the plug on all U.S. aid to the Palestinians is not something the Netanyahu government wants. Some of the money goes to help fund the PA security forces that cooperate extensively with the Israelis. Without these funds the PA could collapse and leave the Israelis with the messy job of having to administer the territories as well as depriving them of the assistance that the Palestinians provide in keeping a lid on terror in the West Bank.

Thus, while the Israelis have been denouncing the PA in the last week since Abbas announced the deal with Hamas that put a formal end to the peace talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry, they actually don’t want anyone in Washington to act on those complaints, at least with regard to the money that the U.S. funnels to the PA.

That means Paul’s line about AIPAC being derelict in its job is, at best, a cheap shot, and, at worse, a devious attack on a group that rightly suspects that his overtures toward the Jewish state are not to be trusted.

But before we file this incident away as an incomplete forward pass cynically aimed at Jewish voters by Paul, those who care about Israel and the slim hopes for peace need to acknowledge that the isolationist isn’t completely wrong here.

The security cooperation between the two peace partners/antagonists helps the PA as much if not more than Israel because without it Hamas might have toppled Abbas in the West Bank just as it did in Gaza in 2007. But, like it or not, Israel needs the PA to stay afloat even if it is an untrustworthy, hate fomenting foe as much as a partner.

Yet part of the problem with the PA dating back to its beginnings in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords is that it has exploited Israel’s dependence on it as a shield against accountability. Rather than use aid to the PA as leverage to force it to stand up against terror and to stop broadcasting hate and undermining peace, the U.S., often with Israel’s connivance, has given it a pass. It has been all carrot and no stick, a situation that has allowed the PA to become an institution that works hard to stoke the fires of the conflict even as it is insincerely praised as a force for peace. No matter what it does, up to and including forming a new alliance with a group that is dedicated not just to Israel’s elimination but also to genocide, it knows it can be sure that the spigot of U.S. taxpayer money funneling into the pockets of Abbas’s Fatah cronies will never be turned off. Just as Kerry’s initiative failed in large measure because of the administration’s unwillingness to press the Palestinians while they were also mercilessly bashing Israel, so, too, does the aid perpetuate the conflict as much it helps keep the peace.

While it is true the Israelis are no more interested in cutting U.S. aid to the Palestinians than the administration, Paul is right in the sense that unless something is eventually done to scare the PA straight, it will never stop feeding the anti-Zionist hate that fuels the conflict. This is a sentiment that is shared by most supporters of Israel, including AIPAC members. Nor is it surprising that the Zionist Organization of America formally endorsed Paul’s proposal.

So while Paul’s swipe at AIPAC was wrongheaded and has more to do with his ambition than any love for Israel, his critics shouldn’t be so blithe about spiking his proposal. It’s time to start holding the PA accountable for its behavior. What’s too bad is that Paul, of all people, seems to be the only one ready to do so.

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Why Americans Seem So Torn on Foreign Policy

Though comparisons between Russian leaders today and 20th century monsters like Hitler and Stalin are generally–and rightfully–resisted or corrected when used in the U.S., it’s impossible to understand the conflict in Ukraine without making room for the sense of history that hangs over Europe. Der Spiegel reports on German veterans who recognize too much of the scenes in Ukraine from their own time serving there seventy years ago (though the Germans were the invaders that time). And the New York Times notices a once-forgotten Moscow Cold War museum now swamped by visitors “drawn as much by history as by the sense that the combustible, post-World War II conflict between East and West has come roaring back to life.”

This also makes it easier to understand European nerves over American inaction. If they see the possibility of a massive war engulfing Europe’s major powers, they must also see American war-weariness and retrenchment chic as distinct but not tangibly different, for their own purposes, from the American isolationism they remember as well. So in one sense, they could be heartened by the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll which, as Max notes, shows an American public confused and hesitant about America’s role in the world but not isolationist. But that optimism is based on the sense that Americans are open to persuasion on foreign involvement, which leads to the crucial question: who is doing the persuading?

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Though comparisons between Russian leaders today and 20th century monsters like Hitler and Stalin are generally–and rightfully–resisted or corrected when used in the U.S., it’s impossible to understand the conflict in Ukraine without making room for the sense of history that hangs over Europe. Der Spiegel reports on German veterans who recognize too much of the scenes in Ukraine from their own time serving there seventy years ago (though the Germans were the invaders that time). And the New York Times notices a once-forgotten Moscow Cold War museum now swamped by visitors “drawn as much by history as by the sense that the combustible, post-World War II conflict between East and West has come roaring back to life.”

This also makes it easier to understand European nerves over American inaction. If they see the possibility of a massive war engulfing Europe’s major powers, they must also see American war-weariness and retrenchment chic as distinct but not tangibly different, for their own purposes, from the American isolationism they remember as well. So in one sense, they could be heartened by the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll which, as Max notes, shows an American public confused and hesitant about America’s role in the world but not isolationist. But that optimism is based on the sense that Americans are open to persuasion on foreign involvement, which leads to the crucial question: who is doing the persuading?

Max notes the central contradiction in the results: the pollsters asked Americans what they thought (in addition to a bevy of other issues) about foreign policy, and Americans responded, essentially, that they have no idea. They succumbed to a kind of magical thinking on foreign policy in which they want the U.S. to pull back from the world without creating a vacuum–a logical impossibility. They appear frustrated that when America plays a reduced role in world affairs its influence is replaced by Vladimir Putin instead of unicorns and labradoodles (I’m paraphrasing slightly).

But on some level that confusion is understandable because the president of the United States is arguing out loud with the straw men in his head, claiming that the alternative to toothless sanctions is total world war. Americans at home may see this as the amusing inanity of an ideologue who is losing an argument, but it’s doubtful the Europeans are laughing. It turns out there is some middle ground between treating Putin like Gilly from Saturday Night Live and nuking Moscow, though you wouldn’t know it from the commander in chief.

The fact of the matter is, as I’ve noted from time to time, the president has a unique ability to shape public opinion on foreign policy, more so than on domestic policy. Americans have internalized the president as both the leader of the free world and the commander in chief of the armed forces of the planet’s only superpower. So the public is not going to be easily persuaded on the goodness of American power projection by this administration.

Looking forward, again, Europeans are probably not too encouraged. The Democrats are seeking to succeed Obama with Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state who presided over the failed Russian “reset,” chewed out allies like Israel, and expressed regret to Pakistan–which cooperates with anti-American terrorists and sheltered Osama bin Laden–for past American policy. On the right, the debate looks to be more interesting, not least because unlike the Democrats the Republicans do want to have an actual debate, not a coronation.

Sentiments like those expressed in the poll are reflected in the way the Republican race for the nomination has taken shape so far. The president’s abject failures have opened space for those who can present a serious alternative. That means that Republicans with the most success so far have been those like Scott Walker and Rand Paul, with the former proving conservative governance can fix even deep and costly liberal mismanagement and the latter making a thoughtful case for individual liberty in the face of liberal attacks on basic freedoms.

But the effect on the foreign-policy debate has been muted. Paul advocates retrenchment (though without the apology tour, one suspects) and has warned not to “tweak Russia.” Others like Walker seem to disagree with Paul on foreign policy but as the governor of a Midwestern state locked in a battle with government unions in the midst of the dismal Obama economy, the issue doesn’t exactly come up very often. Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who possesses one of the stronger resumes of the potential 2016 class, has started branching out a bit more into foreign affairs but remains mired in a debate over education policy back home. Others are facing similar circumstances, with the high-profile exception of Marco Rubio. The Florida senator has dropped a bit in the polls recently, but he has not shied away from displaying his fluency in foreign affairs or striking a contrast to Paul’s perspective.

So yes, Americans are inclined toward the maintenance of a peaceable world order, and they are persuadable on the need for America to protect that order with a robust presence on the world stage. But they’re not going to get there on their own.

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More on Rand Paul and Jack Hunter

Because my piece on Rand Paul was so long, I decided to add this separate post, since I think it makes an important point.

Those of us who strongly object when the left constantly invokes the charge of racism against people on the right find our work made rather more difficult because of people like Jack Hunter.

To read through Mr. Hunter’s work is to journey into a very ugly and angry world. And here’s the thing: It’s a world that wasn’t hidden or shrouded in secrecy. As I pointed out in my previous post, Mr. Hunter’s words were on the public record, in his name, before he joined Rand Paul’s staff. And, for that matter, before he joined the Ron Paul presidential campaign. Senator Paul’s people had to know what they were dealing with, and what they were getting, in Jack Hunter. And when Senator Paul says he only knew “vaguely” about Hunter’s writings, what does that mean? It’s not as if what Hunter was writing about African Americans, slavery, the Confederacy, Lincoln, Booth, and all the rest were minor parts of Hunter’s oeuvre

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Because my piece on Rand Paul was so long, I decided to add this separate post, since I think it makes an important point.

Those of us who strongly object when the left constantly invokes the charge of racism against people on the right find our work made rather more difficult because of people like Jack Hunter.

To read through Mr. Hunter’s work is to journey into a very ugly and angry world. And here’s the thing: It’s a world that wasn’t hidden or shrouded in secrecy. As I pointed out in my previous post, Mr. Hunter’s words were on the public record, in his name, before he joined Rand Paul’s staff. And, for that matter, before he joined the Ron Paul presidential campaign. Senator Paul’s people had to know what they were dealing with, and what they were getting, in Jack Hunter. And when Senator Paul says he only knew “vaguely” about Hunter’s writings, what does that mean? It’s not as if what Hunter was writing about African Americans, slavery, the Confederacy, Lincoln, Booth, and all the rest were minor parts of Hunter’s oeuvre

What Mr. Hunter wrote isn’t a close call and it can’t be dismissed as the folly of youth. And what he wrote is a lot worse than “stupid,” to quote Senator Paul. We’re dealing with the morally offensive words of an adult columnist. Let’s just say that celebrating the death of Lincoln and raising “a personal toast every May 10 to celebrate John Wilkes Booth’s birthday” is disturbing even for those who may not consider Lincoln (as I do) arguably the greatest American in history. How did such a person even get an interview, let alone be hired, let alone co-author a book with Senator Paul?  

There’s something quite troubling going on here; and if Rand Paul decides he wants to try to lead the party of Lincoln, this issue isn’t going to disappear. Jack Hunter’s words will cast a long shadow.  

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The Problem with Rand Paul

In his column earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens laid out his case against Rand Paul becoming the GOP’s presidential nominee. It was a powerful indictment and perhaps one worth building on.  

Mr. Stephens highlighted what he believes would be some of the obstacles facing Senator Paul, beginning with his long political association with Jack Hunter, alias the “Southern Avenger,” who among other things wrote an April 13, 2004 column titled “John Wilkes Booth Was Right.”

The “Southern Avenger” said this:

Although Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth’s heart was in the right place, the Southern Avenger does regret that Lincoln’s murder automatically turned him into a martyr. American heroes like Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee have been unfairly attacked in recent years, but Abraham Lincoln is still regarded as a saint. Well, he wasn’t it – far from it. In fact, not only was Abraham Lincoln the worst President, but one of the worst figures in American history… The fact that April 15th is both the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination and tax day makes perfect sense. We might not even have had a federal income tax if it weren’t for him. And I imagine somewhere in hell Abe Lincoln is probably having the last laugh.


Here is Jack Hunter, writing in his own name, declaring in 2009 that “Hitler was an admirer of the 16th president for all the obvious reasons.” (The adjective “obvious” is such a nice touch.) Later that year, again in a column bearing Hunter’s name, we read this:

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In his column earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens laid out his case against Rand Paul becoming the GOP’s presidential nominee. It was a powerful indictment and perhaps one worth building on.  

Mr. Stephens highlighted what he believes would be some of the obstacles facing Senator Paul, beginning with his long political association with Jack Hunter, alias the “Southern Avenger,” who among other things wrote an April 13, 2004 column titled “John Wilkes Booth Was Right.”

The “Southern Avenger” said this:

Although Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth’s heart was in the right place, the Southern Avenger does regret that Lincoln’s murder automatically turned him into a martyr. American heroes like Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee have been unfairly attacked in recent years, but Abraham Lincoln is still regarded as a saint. Well, he wasn’t it – far from it. In fact, not only was Abraham Lincoln the worst President, but one of the worst figures in American history… The fact that April 15th is both the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination and tax day makes perfect sense. We might not even have had a federal income tax if it weren’t for him. And I imagine somewhere in hell Abe Lincoln is probably having the last laugh.


Here is Jack Hunter, writing in his own name, declaring in 2009 that “Hitler was an admirer of the 16th president for all the obvious reasons.” (The adjective “obvious” is such a nice touch.) Later that year, again in a column bearing Hunter’s name, we read this:

In 1999, I already thought Americans were too different: “America is becoming more diverse and multicultural which means the multiplicity of ideas and values will increase. Only states’ rights, the heart of the Confederate cause, can meet this challenge.”

If divorce is considered preferable to a marriage that can’t be fixed, might not divorce also be preferable to a political union that has failed as well? The Jeffersonian, decentralist philosophy and all-American radicalism I embraced fully in my youth makes even more sense today [2009] than in 1999. Whether revisiting states’ rights or going the route of full-blown secession, it would be far more logical to allow the many, very different parts of this country to pursue their own visions than to keep pretending we are all looking through the same lens. And looking back on my own past, I am reminded that any future South worth avenging would do well to revisit its own radical heritage — so that the principles of limited government might rise again.

Chris Haire, Hunter’s former editor at the Charleston City Paper, wrote this

While a member of the City Paper’s stable of freelancers, Jack wrote in support of racially profiling Hispanics, praised white supremacist Sam Francis, blasted the House of Representative’s apology for slavery, claimed that black people should apologize to white people for high crime rates, defended former Atlanta Braves pitcher and racist John Rocker and Charleston County School District board member Nancy Cook after she said some mothers should be sterilized, argued that Islam was an innately dangerous threat to the U.S, professed that he would have voted for a member a British neo-Nazi political party if he could have, considered endorsing former Council of Conservative Citizens member Buddy Witherspoon in his bid to unseat Sen. Lindsey Graham, compared Abraham Lincoln to Adolf Hitler and Ike Turner, and continued to profess the erroneous claim that the primary cause of the Civil War was not the fight over slavery, ignoring the decades of American history leading up to war and South Carolina’s very own Declaration of the Immediate Causes for Secession, which clearly note that protecting slavery was the preeminent motivation of state leaders. 

People are free to judge these columns individually, but there does seem to be a disturbing pattern here, no? Remember this, too: All of this was in the public domain before Hunter joined Senator Paul’s staff. So how exactly does such a thing happen?

Mr. Hunter–who was also the former chairman of the Charleston, South Carolina chapter of the League of the South, a secessionist group–was Senator Paul’s social media director, a person whose foreign-policy views Paul reportedly sought out, and the self-described co-author of Mr. Paul’s 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington. He was also the official blogger for Representative Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign. 

Last summer, after controversy of his writings broke out based on a story by the Washington Free Beacon’s Alana Goodman, Hunter left Senator Paul’s staff. Earlier that year, Hunter wrote, “From 2010 until today, I have constantly been accused of being a propagandist for Rand Paul. It is true. I believe in Sen. Paul 100%. I have been waiting for a political figure of his type to emerge my entire life.” 

Senator Paul, who called Hunter’s writings “stupid”  and distanced himself from them, told The Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman that he had only known “vaguely” about Hunter’s writings. Hunter, Paul said, “is incredibly talented. Look and listen to the actual words and not to the headlines, people.”

Having looked at both, I can say with some confidence that the actual words are worse than the headlines.

The Journal’s Bret Stephens then focuses his column on a YouTube video of Paul in April 2009, warning that the Iraq war was started because of Dick Cheney’s connections to Halliburton. (An additional video of Paul repeatedly invoking his father Ron and criticizing Cheney can be found here.) It tells you quite a lot that Mr. Paul, without a shred of evidence, would accuse the last Republican vice president of leading America to war not because he was wrong but because he was malevolent, wanting to enrich a company for which he had been CEO.

But that’s still not where Senator Paul’s troubles end.

Despite his efforts insisting otherwise, Senator Paul was a critic of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, at least an important part of it. His opposition was not based on racism but rather on an ideological–and in this case, a libertarian–commitment.

“I don’t like the idea of telling private business owners — I abhor racism,” Paul said. “I think it’s a bad business decision to ever exclude anybody from your restaurant. But, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership. But I think there should absolutely be no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding, and that’s most of what I think the Civil Rights Act was about in my mind.”

There’s something else Paul said in this interview that’s worth noting. He said that one of the reasons he admired Martin Luther King Jr. is that he was “a true believer.”

“What I don’t like most about politics is almost none of them are believers,” Paul said. “And [King] was a true believer.”

So, in a very different way, is Rand Paul. He is a deeply committed libertarian–not in the bizarre and offensive way his father is, but in much nicer and neater package. (Some of the people Mr. Paul has surrounded himself with seem to be another matter.)

Rand Paul can come across as agreeable, intelligent, reasonable, with rounded rather than sharp edges. But make no mistake: he’s a “conviction politician” who is intent on reshaping his party and then his country. At the same time, he’s developed something of a talent at not revealing too much about his true views. He knows they are out of step, and in some cases directly at odds, with the views of many Republicans and indeed many Americans. And so these days he picks his targets rather carefully–the NSA, drones, foreign aid, drug legalization.

But one senses that those issues are just above the waterline–and there are others far below it that Paul would just as soon keep that way, at least until he is in a position to advance his agenda. That’s why I’d encourage you to watch the video links above. There you will see a Rand Paul who is more impolitic, more unalloyed, and I think more authentic.

I don’t believe Rand Paul is a bigot. I do think he’s a true believer. And if he runs for the presidency, it’s a fair question for Republicans to ask what it is about Senator Paul’s political beliefs that would inspire the loyalty of people like Jack Hunter. There may be a perfectly good answer to this question. Or not. But we do know this: if Republicans don’t ask it of Senator Paul, a Democratic nominee surely would.

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Immigration Debate Is Just Getting Started

Nearly every question of how a Republican politician’s stand will affect the 2016 presidential primaries must be qualified with “it depends who else runs.” And so it is with Jeb Bush’s comments on immigration. Although conservatives have more objections to Bush than on immigration, other issues–such as the Common Core, for example–just don’t have the visibility the immigration issue does. Nor do those other issues have the legislative and policy relevance of immigration: the Senate, after all, did pass an immigration reform bill.

Additionally, immigration arguably played a greater role than any other specific issue in sifting wheat from chaff in the 2012 Republican primaries. There were other factors, but it seems clear that Rick Perry was at least damaged by his comments on immigration–that if you don’t support in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrations “I don’t think you have a heart.” Bush’s comment–that such migration is “an act of love”–has been compared to Perry’s, and it’s also similar to a far better phrased version of the argument put forth by Newt Gingrich, who put it in terms of separating families. And we got a preview of how Bush’s comments might be countered in a 2016 version of those debates from Ted Cruz, in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper:

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Nearly every question of how a Republican politician’s stand will affect the 2016 presidential primaries must be qualified with “it depends who else runs.” And so it is with Jeb Bush’s comments on immigration. Although conservatives have more objections to Bush than on immigration, other issues–such as the Common Core, for example–just don’t have the visibility the immigration issue does. Nor do those other issues have the legislative and policy relevance of immigration: the Senate, after all, did pass an immigration reform bill.

Additionally, immigration arguably played a greater role than any other specific issue in sifting wheat from chaff in the 2012 Republican primaries. There were other factors, but it seems clear that Rick Perry was at least damaged by his comments on immigration–that if you don’t support in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrations “I don’t think you have a heart.” Bush’s comment–that such migration is “an act of love”–has been compared to Perry’s, and it’s also similar to a far better phrased version of the argument put forth by Newt Gingrich, who put it in terms of separating families. And we got a preview of how Bush’s comments might be countered in a 2016 version of those debates from Ted Cruz, in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper:

“We need to be a nation that welcomes and celebrates legal immigrants, people who follow the rules, and come here according to the law,” said Cruz in response.

“Rule of law matters. And if you look at any sovereign nation, securing your border is critically important,” said the freshman lawmaker.

“We need to solve the problem to secure the borders and then improve and streamline legal immigration so people can come to America consistent with the rule of law,” said Cruz.

Cruz’s response is not particularly controversial, though it’s clear he’s less concerned about fixing America’s legal immigration system–which is an unholy mess–than about securing the border. Both are important: in the age of asymmetric warfare, it makes no sense to have an unsecured border; and the current restrictions and layers of red tape on immigration are artificially distorting the market for labor and creating a black market–as overregulation almost always does–to fill the demand.

More relevant to 2016 than this argument–which goes round and round, and round again–is what it indicates about the various actors involved. And it confirms the pattern we’ve seen from Ted Cruz on his strategy for the primary contest. Cruz has not taken to promoting major reform legislation or “owning” an issue such as it is. Instead, he moves with alacrity to position himself slightly closer to the party’s grassroots when such reform is proposed.

There’s nothing objectionable about the strategy. Cruz is not required to churn out white papers or author major reform legislation, and if he does run for president he’ll do so anyway. It might not be on immigration, but in all likelihood a Cruz candidacy would include a tax plan at the very least. What the strategy is allowing Cruz to do is take the temperature of the party’s grassroots as the 2016 picture fills out.

Cruz has deployed the strategy against the candidate who would probably be his closest rival for grassroots voters, Rand Paul. When the Kentucky senator staged his famous filibuster over drones to the applause of conservatives (and a few non-conservatives as well), Cruz joined him on the chamber floor for the assist. But Paul’s response to the crisis in Ukraine was too tepid for Cruz, who staked out vague but more interventionist ground:

“I’m a big fan of Rand Paul. He and I are good friends. But I don’t agree with him on foreign policy,” Cruz said. “I think U.S. leadership is critical in the world. And I agree with him that we should be very reluctant to deploy military force abroad. But I think there is a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did… The United States has a responsibility to defend our values.”

Cruz portrays the difference between him and Paul as a philosophical one, which is why, as I’ve argued in the past, foreign policy is likely to be a more prominent point of contention in the 2016 GOP primary season than it was in 2012. As Jeb Bush’s comments showed, the contentious domestic issue is likely to be immigration, which is why, no matter how stalled in the House immigration legislation remains, it’s an argument that will only get louder between now and 2016.

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The Debate We Should Be Having About Rand Paul and Sanctions

Rand Paul was put on the defensive this week over criticism stemming from comments he made last year, posted on Jennifer Rubin’s Washington Post blog, on Iran sanctions: “There are times when sanctions have made it worse. There are times–leading up to World War II, we cut off trade with Japan. That probably caused Japan to react angrily. We also had a blockade on Germany after World War I, which may have encouraged some of their anger.”

As with a great many conversations involving Hitler, the debate went off course almost immediately in ways that were unfair to Paul. The senator’s senior advisor told the Post in response: “World War II was a necessary war, a just war, a fully declared war, and an entirely victorious war; the megalomaniac Hitler was to blame for the war and the Holocaust.” So some of the sympathy for Paul is warranted: his recorded statements didn’t suggest that the United States was at fault for Hitler’s rise and the subsequent consequences.

“There’s a debate to be had on foreign policy,” David Harsanyi argues, reasonably. “This isn’t it.” Harsanyi goes on to make the following point:

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Rand Paul was put on the defensive this week over criticism stemming from comments he made last year, posted on Jennifer Rubin’s Washington Post blog, on Iran sanctions: “There are times when sanctions have made it worse. There are times–leading up to World War II, we cut off trade with Japan. That probably caused Japan to react angrily. We also had a blockade on Germany after World War I, which may have encouraged some of their anger.”

As with a great many conversations involving Hitler, the debate went off course almost immediately in ways that were unfair to Paul. The senator’s senior advisor told the Post in response: “World War II was a necessary war, a just war, a fully declared war, and an entirely victorious war; the megalomaniac Hitler was to blame for the war and the Holocaust.” So some of the sympathy for Paul is warranted: his recorded statements didn’t suggest that the United States was at fault for Hitler’s rise and the subsequent consequences.

“There’s a debate to be had on foreign policy,” David Harsanyi argues, reasonably. “This isn’t it.” Harsanyi goes on to make the following point:

What Paul never contends is that Hitler’s ideology hinged on the idea of opposing Versailles. He was talking about Germany and Germans. In front of me is Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, where the author basically makes the same case and Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, in which she writes that though Versailles’ impact had likely been exaggerated by German governments, it allowed political parties like the Nazis to tap into widespread “anger” and resentment. Sounds like that’s what Rand was saying.

True enough, though it’s worth noting that in Modern Times, Johnson has much more to say about the grievances unleashed by Versailles, and they center on the ethnic strife sparked by transferring Europe to the individual nation-state model from the age of empires–“self-determination,” in Johnson’s writing, which created more restive minority populations because there were more states. Where economic factors played a role, Johnson seems to put emphasis on the fact that more states also meant more poor states, especially in the immediate postwar period, and he notes that Germany was considered to have defaulted on its postwar obligations as well. If any aspect of Versailles encouraged German expansionism, Johnson appears to blame the fact that “under the Treaty it was forbidden to seek union with Germany, which made the Anschluss seem more attractive than it actually was.”

But I think Paul’s defenders here are on less steady ground in dismissing Paul’s comments as they relate to Pearl Harbor. He prefaced his sanctions comments–at least on Pearl Harbor–by saying sometimes sanctions “have made it worse.” Taken individually, sanctions on a nation can be treated this way. But it doesn’t always apply, and it applies perhaps less to Japan than almost any other scenario (Germany, Iraq, Iran, etc.).

As some have said since Paul’s comments, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was a sort of preemptive strike to at least temporarily avert an American response to simultaneous Japanese aggression throughout the region, including on Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. But another important facet of this is that the sanctions weren’t a surprise to Japan, because they were in response to Japanese action. As the historian Ian Toll writes, Japan took action its leaders–reminded by Admiral Yamamoto, who initially wanted to avoid an unwinnable war–knew would precipitate sanctions, and the whole process would bring them toward war:

From his flagship, Nagato, usually anchored in Hiroshima Bay, Yamamoto continued to warn against joining with the Nazis. He reminded his government that Japan imported around four-fifths of its oil and steel from areas controlled by the Allies. To risk conflict, he wrote, was foolhardy, because “there is no chance of winning a war with the United States for some time to come.”

But Japan’s confused and divided government drifted toward war while refusing to face the strategic problems it posed. It signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy in Berlin in September 1940. As Yamamoto had predicted, the American government quickly restricted and finally cut off exports of oil and other vital materials. The sanctions brought events to a head, because Japan had no domestic oil production to speak of, and would exhaust its stockpiles in about a year.

Yamamoto realized he had lost the fight to keep Japan out of war, and he fell in line with the planning process.

Yamamoto warned against the process because he wrongly thought his leaders wanted to avoid war, when in fact they provoked it. This doesn’t mean Paul is “blaming” the U.S. for the attack on Pearl Harbor (and by extension, American entry into World War II). But it raises questions about Paul’s selective use of history–and bad history does not usually inform good policy.

I have raised this issue with Paul before. When he made his major foreign-policy address a year ago, he advocated a greater emphasis on containment. But he conflated the Kennanite version of containment with the strategy that ultimately won the Cold War, which was far from the truth. In reality, Kennan’s ideas were central to the Truman administration’s decision to embrace containment, but his version of containment was so different that Kennan adamantly refused to take credit for it.

It is far from clear that a nuclear Iran would be containable the way the Soviet Union was–in fact, it’s unlikely. But Paul’s version of containment would not have even contained the Soviet Union. Paul’s habit of cherry-picking history to create precedents for his own preferred strategy seems to be present with his comments on Japanese sanctions and Pearl Harbor as well. It certainly doesn’t make him a blame-America-firster. But it does suggest unsound strategic judgment.

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Rubio and Paul Trading Places?

Much has been made about the fact that Marco Rubio struggled last year and has thrived thus far in 2014. But while Rubio never seemed to have a specific rivalry with Rand Paul (who sparred with Chris Christie and more recently Ted Cruz), the two prospective 2016 presidential candidates seem to have their political fates connected in a way others don’t: one’s loss often accompanies the other’s gain. And this year, as Rubio recovers his footing it’s Paul who appears to be struggling. That’s been fairly consistent with the two Republicans’ shared term in the Senate thus far.

When Rubio burst onto the national GOP stage in 2010 in his Senate race against Charlie Crist, conservatives loved his message but fretted that his political persona was too dependent on that one message. The concern was voiced in August of that year by Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes, who wrote: “In every appearance, including my interview with him in late July, he delivers the speech in whole or in part. There’s a reason for this: It’s an awfully good speech. It’s intensely patriotic and focused on how he’d like voters to see the choice they face in the election. It’s better than any speech I’ve heard from a Republican candidate or elected official in a long time. And Rubio delivers it passionately.”

That was all correct, but a question lingered: the right hoped Rubio would run for president sooner rather than later. Would his policy chops catch up, and could he build a record in time? The answer over the last couple of years, but especially this year so far, seems to be: Yes. His biggest setback has been his attempt to reform immigration law, but it showed at least that he wasn’t shy about putting forth detailed plans and advocating for them. Since immigration reform, he’s put out plans to tackle poverty, economic growth, higher education reform, and he hit his stride when attention turned to foreign affairs with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the popular unrest in Venezuela.

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Much has been made about the fact that Marco Rubio struggled last year and has thrived thus far in 2014. But while Rubio never seemed to have a specific rivalry with Rand Paul (who sparred with Chris Christie and more recently Ted Cruz), the two prospective 2016 presidential candidates seem to have their political fates connected in a way others don’t: one’s loss often accompanies the other’s gain. And this year, as Rubio recovers his footing it’s Paul who appears to be struggling. That’s been fairly consistent with the two Republicans’ shared term in the Senate thus far.

When Rubio burst onto the national GOP stage in 2010 in his Senate race against Charlie Crist, conservatives loved his message but fretted that his political persona was too dependent on that one message. The concern was voiced in August of that year by Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes, who wrote: “In every appearance, including my interview with him in late July, he delivers the speech in whole or in part. There’s a reason for this: It’s an awfully good speech. It’s intensely patriotic and focused on how he’d like voters to see the choice they face in the election. It’s better than any speech I’ve heard from a Republican candidate or elected official in a long time. And Rubio delivers it passionately.”

That was all correct, but a question lingered: the right hoped Rubio would run for president sooner rather than later. Would his policy chops catch up, and could he build a record in time? The answer over the last couple of years, but especially this year so far, seems to be: Yes. His biggest setback has been his attempt to reform immigration law, but it showed at least that he wasn’t shy about putting forth detailed plans and advocating for them. Since immigration reform, he’s put out plans to tackle poverty, economic growth, higher education reform, and he hit his stride when attention turned to foreign affairs with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the popular unrest in Venezuela.

Rubio seemed to sputter in 2013 as Paul saw his moment in the sun. Paul’s famous filibuster not only won him plaudits from both sides of the aisle but also got his fellow Republican senators–Rubio among them–to appear on the chamber floor as supporting characters. Then the Edward Snowden affair happened, and Paul appeared to go from potential dark horse candidate in 2016 to the top tier. As the NSA domestic surveillance revelations were easily folded into the broader narrative of President Obama’s intrusive, big-government agenda, Paul took a step toward the front of the pack.

Part of Paul’s appeal was a term and a concept we’ve come to prize in American politics, with its ubiquity of television cameras and endless debates: authenticity. Paul came across as genuine and comfortable in his own skin, and he spoke confidently and fluently to any audience that would hear from him. It was no surprise that Paul and Christie developed something of a (brief) rivalry; neither pulls punches.

But Paul comes across as genuinely uncomfortable talking about foreign crises where the choice isn’t war or peace but something in the middle. Ukraine has made the contrast with Rubio clear, not just on policy but on the fact that events have shifted onto the latter’s turf. Paul’s TIME magazine piece on the appropriate American reaction to the Crimean crisis has already come in for some tough criticism, for example from National Review’s Patrick Brennan, who called Paul’s ideas “terrible or delusional.” But what caught my attention was more the stylistic clumsiness of the messaging–not that U.S. senators should be graded on whether their prose matches up to Tolstoy’s but to their own. In other words, Paul’s surefootedness is completely absent. For example:

America is a world leader, but we should not be its policeman or ATM.

At the end of the day, I still agree with former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen — the greatest threat to America’s security is our national debt.

Russia, the Middle East or any other troubled part of the world should never make us forget that the U.S. is broke. We weaken our security and defenses when we print money out of thin air or borrow from other countries to allegedly support our own.

Like Dwight Eisenhower, I believe the U.S. can actually be stronger by doing less.

Like Ronald Reagan, particularly regarding Russia, I also believe, “Don’t mistake our reluctance for war for a lack of resolve.”

That’s just a sample, but much of the piece is written that way. It’s unlike Paul to speak without saying something, but he comes close to doing so on Ukraine. More than a week before Paul’s piece was published, Rubio published at Politico an immediate reaction to the crisis, whose applicability showed he was either prepared for the Russian action or he didn’t need to be to know how to react.

The issues underpinning Rubio and Paul’s fortunes demonstrate something else: unlike Christie’s “bridgegate,” which involved his staff, for Paul and Rubio events beyond their control have exerted upward or downward pressure on them–in Paul’s case, the NSA revelations and for both the crisis in Ukraine (and to a lesser extent Venezuela). It shows the degree of uncertainty and luck in the process. But then again, that’s often how it is in the White House too.

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Cruz to Rand: Tea Party ≠ Isolationist

Senator Rand Paul is smart enough not to place too much importance on his victory in the presidential straw poll held at the recently concluded CPAC conference. Paul was undoubtedly the favorite of the conservative activists who attended the annual big conservative jamboree and received the biggest ovation of all the GOP stars who spoke there. Yet he is sure to remember that his father Ron also won the straw poll in 2010 and 2011 without it aiding his noisy but ultimately futile 2012 presidential candidacy.

However no one, least of all, his GOP rivals, should think that Paul hasn’t expanded his base from his father’s band of libertarian extremists or won’t be a first tier contender in 2016 when runs for president. He has maintained the momentum he got from his filibuster on drones last year while also carefully avoiding confrontations with the GOP establishment he’s eager to supersede. Many of his backers thought the disastrous government shutdown was a good idea and want to make all members of the party leadership to pay for the compromises they forged in order to extricate Republicans from the corner into which the Tea Party had painted them. However, Paul is quietly backing his Kentucky colleague Mitch McConnell for re-election. He’s also sent out signals to the establishment that he should be trusted to avoid extremism by saying that the shutdown wasn’t such a good idea.

But none of that changes the fact that Paul remains outside the mainstream of his party on foreign policy. As Ted Cruz, Paul’s main rival for the affection of Tea Party voters, reminded the country today on ABC’s “This Week,” it would be a mistake to think the Kentucky senator’s neo-isolationist views represent the sentiments of most conservatives or even Tea Partiers. Resentment against big government and suspicion of President Obama’s actions may have helped boost Paul’s popularity, but the idea that it is Rand’s party on foreign policy is a myth.

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Senator Rand Paul is smart enough not to place too much importance on his victory in the presidential straw poll held at the recently concluded CPAC conference. Paul was undoubtedly the favorite of the conservative activists who attended the annual big conservative jamboree and received the biggest ovation of all the GOP stars who spoke there. Yet he is sure to remember that his father Ron also won the straw poll in 2010 and 2011 without it aiding his noisy but ultimately futile 2012 presidential candidacy.

However no one, least of all, his GOP rivals, should think that Paul hasn’t expanded his base from his father’s band of libertarian extremists or won’t be a first tier contender in 2016 when runs for president. He has maintained the momentum he got from his filibuster on drones last year while also carefully avoiding confrontations with the GOP establishment he’s eager to supersede. Many of his backers thought the disastrous government shutdown was a good idea and want to make all members of the party leadership to pay for the compromises they forged in order to extricate Republicans from the corner into which the Tea Party had painted them. However, Paul is quietly backing his Kentucky colleague Mitch McConnell for re-election. He’s also sent out signals to the establishment that he should be trusted to avoid extremism by saying that the shutdown wasn’t such a good idea.

But none of that changes the fact that Paul remains outside the mainstream of his party on foreign policy. As Ted Cruz, Paul’s main rival for the affection of Tea Party voters, reminded the country today on ABC’s “This Week,” it would be a mistake to think the Kentucky senator’s neo-isolationist views represent the sentiments of most conservatives or even Tea Partiers. Resentment against big government and suspicion of President Obama’s actions may have helped boost Paul’s popularity, but the idea that it is Rand’s party on foreign policy is a myth.

The assumption that all those who sympathize with the Tea Party agree with Paul on foreign policy is as much a product of liberal mainstream media manipulation as is the canard that they are racists. Those who identify with or view the movement favorably share a common mindset about the need to push back against the expansion of big government and the tax and spend policies that are its foundation. But many of those who call themselves Tea Partiers want nothing to do with Paul’s antipathy for a strong defense and unwillingness to maintain a stalwart U.S. presence abroad to stand up for our allies and our values.

Cruz has carved out a niche for himself among those most antagonistic to the party establishment as well as the liberal big government machine. But today he outlined a point on which he, and many other grass roots conservatives part company with Paul:

“I’m a big fan of Rand Paul,” Cruz said in an interview aired Sunday.” “We are good friends. I don’t agree with him on foreign policy. U.S. leadership is critical in the world. I agree we should be reluctant to deploy military force aboard, but there’s a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did. When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an Evil Empire, when he stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate and said ‘Tear down this wall.’ Those words changed the course of history. The United States has a responsibility to defend our values.”

In doing so, Cruz drew a clear distinction between his beliefs and a Paulite view of America’s place in the world that is for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from Obama’s predilection for retreat from confrontations with aggressors such as Iran or Russia.

Paul sought to align himself with Reagan’s foreign policy views on Fox News Sunday by declaring that his “reluctance for war” shouldn’t be confused with a “lack of resolve.” But to defend that position he cited an op-ed published in the Washington Post on the crisis in the Ukraine by Henry Kissinger as something he agreed with.

While no one doubts Dr. Kissinger’s deep store of knowledge about foreign policy, his piece combined common sense about the limits of America’s ability to undo Russia’s seizure of the Crimea with a sorry rationalization for Vladimir Putin’s aggression. The former secretary of state’s citation of Russian claims to the Ukraine and attempt to argue against strong Western outrage about this crime was exactly the wrong message to send to Russia at a time when it is trying to subvert the independence of that country in order to reassemble in one form or another the late and unlamented Tsarist/Soviet Empire.

The article was a cri de Coeur for a revival not of Reaganite foreign policy but of Kissinger’s own amoral détente with the Soviets that treated human rights (including the fate of a persecuted Soviet Jewry) as an unimportant detail. This sort of “realism” has always had its advocates within the GOP but it was exactly the sort of Republican establishment mindset that Reagan bitterly opposed in the 1976 and 1980 GOP primaries.

For the last generation, the Republican mainstream has, with some notable exceptions, united behind policies that emphasized a strong defense and a foreign policy that rejected retreat in the face of aggression while also upholding American values. It is interesting as well as gratifying to see that for all of his desire to torch the establishment on every other issue, Ted Cruz is very much part of this consensus. Paul can pretend he was more influenced by Reagan than his extremist father (whose views on foreign policy would make him more at home on the far left than the right). But as long as he remains an outlier on this crucial element of presidential politics, he shouldn’t be thought of as representing all Tea Partiers, let alone most Republicans.

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Does Rand’s GOP Think NSA is the Enemy?

In a week in which Americans were reminded that Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney were right and President Obama was wrong about Russia being the primary geo-strategic threat to their country, Senator Rand Paul brought a different perspective on the world to the CPAC conference today. Coming as it did after days of speeches from other conservatives that centered on Obama’s weakness in the face of international terror and Russian aggression as well as concerns about social issues and economic and the need to address the concerns of working people and the poor, Paul changed the subject. In his speech, the Kentucky senator centered on one subject: the threat to civil liberties from an intrusive government. In Rand Paul’s world al-Qaeda and Vladimir Putin are mere annoyances; the real foe is the National Security Agency and its metadata mining.

There are two conclusions can be drawn from this speech that was cheered to the echo by the audience at CPAC. One is that if CPAC activists are a representative sample of the grass roots of the Republican Party (a debatable but not outlandish assumption), there’s little question that Paul has a leg up on the 2016 presidential race. The other is that if those cheers mean that if it’s Rand’s GOP then it is a party with little chance to win in two years no matter what happens in November 2014. As much as Paul’s soaring rhetoric about liberty resonates with the party’s base — and indeed with most Republicans — his obsessive antagonism to national security issues and disinterest in a strong American foreign policy is likely to help doom the GOP to permanent minority status.

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In a week in which Americans were reminded that Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney were right and President Obama was wrong about Russia being the primary geo-strategic threat to their country, Senator Rand Paul brought a different perspective on the world to the CPAC conference today. Coming as it did after days of speeches from other conservatives that centered on Obama’s weakness in the face of international terror and Russian aggression as well as concerns about social issues and economic and the need to address the concerns of working people and the poor, Paul changed the subject. In his speech, the Kentucky senator centered on one subject: the threat to civil liberties from an intrusive government. In Rand Paul’s world al-Qaeda and Vladimir Putin are mere annoyances; the real foe is the National Security Agency and its metadata mining.

There are two conclusions can be drawn from this speech that was cheered to the echo by the audience at CPAC. One is that if CPAC activists are a representative sample of the grass roots of the Republican Party (a debatable but not outlandish assumption), there’s little question that Paul has a leg up on the 2016 presidential race. The other is that if those cheers mean that if it’s Rand’s GOP then it is a party with little chance to win in two years no matter what happens in November 2014. As much as Paul’s soaring rhetoric about liberty resonates with the party’s base — and indeed with most Republicans — his obsessive antagonism to national security issues and disinterest in a strong American foreign policy is likely to help doom the GOP to permanent minority status.

It should be conceded that Paul’s absolutist view of the Fourth Amendment is popular with a lot of Americans who rightly worry about an intrusive big government. That cynicism about the all-powerful state is exacerbated by President Obama’s unconstitutional power grabs on health care, selective enforcement of laws, an out-of-control IRS and spying on the press. His views also resonate with conservatives who like his rhetoric about the party being true to its principles rather than moderating itself in what seems like a vain quest for mainstream approval.

The defense of freedom must always be America’s priority. But what he seems to forget is that the primary element of that defense are not lawsuits against the National Security Agency or paranoia about drone attacks on law-abiding Americans sitting in Starbucks. It requires a strong national defense rather than one gutted by Obama’s cuts that Paul doesn’t seem very upset about. And it also must be based on a robust foreign policy rooted in an understanding that international threats can’t be ignored or wished away by isolationist rhetoric.

The problem with Rand’s vision of the GOP isn’t that Americans think foreign policy is their top concern. That isn’t true even in a week in which foreign news is leading the headlines thanking to Putin’s aggression in the Ukraine. But most Americans know that, for all of their cynicism about government, treating the NSA as the boogeyman is no substitute for an approach for dealing with the world. If Republicans head into the fall of 2016 with Paul as their champion against Hillary Clinton, it will be the author of the comical “reset” with Russia and the person who asked “does it really matter?” about Benghazi that will be seen as the one with the credentials on foreign policy, not the nominee of the party of Ronald Reagan.

Paul’s extreme libertarianism and anti-war approach does offer the GOP a chance to win some votes on the left that will see his foreign policy as indistinguishable from that of liberal Democrats. But it will also concede the vast center of American politics to the Democrats while doing little to bridge the gap with women and minority voters that doomed Mitt Romney in 2012. Conservatives are right to think the GOP must be true to its principles in order to win. Rand’s base has also expanded from the extremists he inherited from his father. But Paul’s foreign policy is not consistent with the traditional Republican attitude toward national defense and it will lose the party votes it can’t make up elsewhere.

A year after his drone filibuster that made him a star, Paul is still basking in the applause from a conservative following that has come to view all government programs — not just the welfare state but national defense too — as the enemy. As other potential front-runners have faltered there is no denying that he is ahead of most of his would-be 2016 competitors. But today’s speech is a reminder to Republicans that a commitment to his agenda could leave them looking foolish when events and the will of the voters obligate them to put forward a view of the world that takes into account America’s real enemies as well as the imperative to fund a viable national defense.

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Ukraine, Isolationism and the Republicans

The Russian invasion of the Ukraine poses a tremendous challenge to President Obama as his feckless attempts at “resets” of relations with Russia and record of weakness abroad have put him a position where he is forced to respond to a crisis for which he clearly has no appetite but can’t ignore. But he isn’t the only one American politician who should be worrying about Vladimir Putin’s ability to overturn the applecart of Washington politics. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul should be just as concerned about how events abroad have a way of upsetting our assumptions about U.S. politics.

During the last year, Paul’s stock has risen within Republican circles as concerns over U.S. spying tactics, drone attacks and government scandals have propelled the libertarian into what might be considered the front runner’s spot for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. While Paul’s strong performance in his drone filibuster and clever distancing of himself from his father’s extremism has enabled him to expand his libertarian base, this was only made possible by the complete absence of a debate on foreign policy among Republicans. Where once support for a strong defense and a robust U.S. presence abroad was mainstream GOP thinking, war weariness after Iraq and Afghanistan and cynicism about President Obama has made Paul’s neo-isolationism to become acceptable and perhaps even popular on the right.

But Putin’s seizure of the Crimea is forcing Republicans as well as the administration to think seriously about foreign policy in a way they haven’t for years. In response, some on both the right and the left are responding by asking why the fate of the Ukraine should interest Americans. While they may sympathize with Putin’s victims, they say the question of sovereignty over Crimea or even the possible reconstruction of the old Soviet empire by the new Tsar in the Kremlin has nothing to do with American security or our interests. Though they self-consciously avoid echoing Neville Chamberlain’s characterization of Czechoslovakia in 1938 after Munich as a “faraway country” when distancing themselves from Ukraine’s peril, there’s little question that they are just as willing to have the West abandon it as it did the Czechs. But such thinking is not only callous; it is irresponsible. Ukraine can only be ignored at the cost of America’s credibility as a world power and to the detriment of the cause of liberty that people like Paul claim to support.

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The Russian invasion of the Ukraine poses a tremendous challenge to President Obama as his feckless attempts at “resets” of relations with Russia and record of weakness abroad have put him a position where he is forced to respond to a crisis for which he clearly has no appetite but can’t ignore. But he isn’t the only one American politician who should be worrying about Vladimir Putin’s ability to overturn the applecart of Washington politics. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul should be just as concerned about how events abroad have a way of upsetting our assumptions about U.S. politics.

During the last year, Paul’s stock has risen within Republican circles as concerns over U.S. spying tactics, drone attacks and government scandals have propelled the libertarian into what might be considered the front runner’s spot for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. While Paul’s strong performance in his drone filibuster and clever distancing of himself from his father’s extremism has enabled him to expand his libertarian base, this was only made possible by the complete absence of a debate on foreign policy among Republicans. Where once support for a strong defense and a robust U.S. presence abroad was mainstream GOP thinking, war weariness after Iraq and Afghanistan and cynicism about President Obama has made Paul’s neo-isolationism to become acceptable and perhaps even popular on the right.

But Putin’s seizure of the Crimea is forcing Republicans as well as the administration to think seriously about foreign policy in a way they haven’t for years. In response, some on both the right and the left are responding by asking why the fate of the Ukraine should interest Americans. While they may sympathize with Putin’s victims, they say the question of sovereignty over Crimea or even the possible reconstruction of the old Soviet empire by the new Tsar in the Kremlin has nothing to do with American security or our interests. Though they self-consciously avoid echoing Neville Chamberlain’s characterization of Czechoslovakia in 1938 after Munich as a “faraway country” when distancing themselves from Ukraine’s peril, there’s little question that they are just as willing to have the West abandon it as it did the Czechs. But such thinking is not only callous; it is irresponsible. Ukraine can only be ignored at the cost of America’s credibility as a world power and to the detriment of the cause of liberty that people like Paul claim to support.

Obama’s fecklessness on Syria, Iran and now Ukraine have made the world a much more dangerous place. Unless you are prepared to retreat back to fortress America, a planet where tyrants feel free to act against U.S. allies and friends is one in which the U.S. is reduced to a second-rate nation with no power to protect its interests or its friends. We’ve already started to see that happen in the Middle East where both Israelis and Arabs now have good reason to be afraid of Iran, and in Europe where Putin is demonstrating that Western-oriented democracies can now be subjected to aggression with impunity. If history teaches us anything it is that such a situation is one in which the U.S. must demonstrate strength or watch as thugs like Putin misinterpret American apathy for a license to do as they like. That often creates unintended consequences for those who think they can ignore the world. To allow the Russians to lie about the Ukrainian protesters who deposed Putin’s puppet regime and to call them Nazis is highly ironic when it is Moscow that is committing aggression in a manner that is highly reminiscent of Europe’s tragic past.

Ron Paul and the libertarian core never demonstrated much interest in pushing back against foreign tyrants because they share the far left’s belief that it is U.S. “imperialism” that is primarily to blame for foreign strife. Rand Paul has benefited from the support from such people but now seeks to have it both ways and convince mainstream Republicans that he can be trusted to defend U.S. security. But there’s no defending American interests or a stable international order while the U.S. full retreat. Just as George W. Bush’s less than robust response to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia set the stage for today’s events in the Ukraine, a weak performance by President Obama could mean that Putin’s next victims could be NATO members in the Baltic republics.

Republicans who claim to value freedom above all values should be capable of understanding that isolationism means treating that word as irrelevant to U.S. foreign policy. Conservatives who remember that concern for the fate of the enslaved people of the Soviet empire was a core principle for Ronald Reagan’s GOP cannot abandon the same people now with a clean conscience. The United States isn’t France. It is the sole superpower democracy and when it abandons its principles abroad the world has a tendency to unravel. That not only hurts the U.S. economy. It will also involve us in conflicts that are not yet on our radar and we won’t be able to ignore no matter how much we’d like to. The return of foreign policy to the front burner of American politics should be the beginning of a process that returns Paul’s libertarians to the margins of American politics.

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Obama, Ukraine and the Price of Weakness

There may be no way for the United States to reverse the Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. The Obama administration still has the opportunity to send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin to punish Moscow for this aggression in response to the ouster of one of their stooge in Kiev by a popular uprising. Indeed, he would do well to listen to the advice of Senator Marco Rubio who outlined eight steps the U.S. should take in response to the crisis. But whether or not the president acts appropriately now, it’s probably too late to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine from a predatory Russia. As he did in Georgia in 2008, Putin counted on both America and Europe being too weak and irresolute to stop him from aggression carried on in his own backyard even if meant violating international law by carrying out a unilateral partition of Ukraine to either annex part of that country to Russia or, as is more likely, set up another puppet state in the strategic Crimea. At this moment, there’s little reason to believe that calculation was incorrect.

But even if we take for granted that it’s too late to save Ukraine, the spectacle of Russian aggression should provoke a re-examination of the direction of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. It should also cause us to think again about the assumption that the American people are, as Senator Rand Paul and a growing chorus of isolationists on both the right and the left have advocated, perfectly happy to retreat from the world stage and let aggressors such as Putin ‘s Russia or Iran have their way.  The lessons of the tragedy unfolding in the Crimea are many, but surely the first of them must be that when dictators don’t fear the warnings of the leader of the free world and when America demonstrates that it is war weary and won’t, on almost any account, take firm action, to defend its interests and to restrain aggression, mayhem is almost certainly always going to follow.

No doubt there will be many, whether they call themselves realists or isolationists, who will in the coming days argue that what happens in the Ukraine is none of our business. Americans who are sick of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan say they want no part of foreign wars or even a strong foreign policy that carries with it the chance of engaging in conflict. They may not cheer when Barack Obama speaks of “leading from behind” but they are entirely comfortable with the general drift toward retreat that has taken place in the last five years under his leadership. But, as we have seen in Syria and now in the Ukraine, there is a price to pay for such weakness and it is not one that will be paid by Bashar Assad or Putin. Nor will others who seek to test the mettle of American resolve, such as the leaders of Iran, fail to observe that the free world is led by a paper tiger. U.S. allies will draw the same conclusion.

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There may be no way for the United States to reverse the Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. The Obama administration still has the opportunity to send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin to punish Moscow for this aggression in response to the ouster of one of their stooge in Kiev by a popular uprising. Indeed, he would do well to listen to the advice of Senator Marco Rubio who outlined eight steps the U.S. should take in response to the crisis. But whether or not the president acts appropriately now, it’s probably too late to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine from a predatory Russia. As he did in Georgia in 2008, Putin counted on both America and Europe being too weak and irresolute to stop him from aggression carried on in his own backyard even if meant violating international law by carrying out a unilateral partition of Ukraine to either annex part of that country to Russia or, as is more likely, set up another puppet state in the strategic Crimea. At this moment, there’s little reason to believe that calculation was incorrect.

But even if we take for granted that it’s too late to save Ukraine, the spectacle of Russian aggression should provoke a re-examination of the direction of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. It should also cause us to think again about the assumption that the American people are, as Senator Rand Paul and a growing chorus of isolationists on both the right and the left have advocated, perfectly happy to retreat from the world stage and let aggressors such as Putin ‘s Russia or Iran have their way.  The lessons of the tragedy unfolding in the Crimea are many, but surely the first of them must be that when dictators don’t fear the warnings of the leader of the free world and when America demonstrates that it is war weary and won’t, on almost any account, take firm action, to defend its interests and to restrain aggression, mayhem is almost certainly always going to follow.

No doubt there will be many, whether they call themselves realists or isolationists, who will in the coming days argue that what happens in the Ukraine is none of our business. Americans who are sick of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan say they want no part of foreign wars or even a strong foreign policy that carries with it the chance of engaging in conflict. They may not cheer when Barack Obama speaks of “leading from behind” but they are entirely comfortable with the general drift toward retreat that has taken place in the last five years under his leadership. But, as we have seen in Syria and now in the Ukraine, there is a price to pay for such weakness and it is not one that will be paid by Bashar Assad or Putin. Nor will others who seek to test the mettle of American resolve, such as the leaders of Iran, fail to observe that the free world is led by a paper tiger. U.S. allies will draw the same conclusion.

A world in which dictators do as they like despite clear American warnings — as President Obama did first in Syria and then again this week about attacks on Ukraine — is not only a far more dangerous place. It also creates a dynamic in which every such American warning or diplomatic initiative is discounted as mere rhetoric, even if those daring to defy the United States are not so well situated as Putin is with his bold stroke in the Crimea. That is especially true with regards to the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

The circumstances of the U.S. diplomatic effort to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions are starkly different from those in the territories of the former Soviet Union. But the basic formula of a bold rogue regime that has no reason to fear the threats or the blandishments of either the U.S. or Europe is present in the P5+1 talks. Lack of credibility in foreign policy cannot be compartmentalized in one region or particular issue. Weakness and irresolution are fungible commodities in international diplomacy. The Obama administration gave up the formidable military, political and economic leverage they had over Iran last fall by signing an interim agreement with Iran that gave Tehran what it wanted in terms of recognizing their right to enrich uranium as well as loosening sanctions in exchange for almost nothing. If the Iranians had good reason to think they had nothing to fear from the Obama administration before this latest humiliation of the president at the hands of Putin, their conviction that they can be as tough as they like with him without worrying about a strong American response can only be greater today.

It is too late to save Ukraine from the theft of its territory. But it is not too late to reverse the U.S. retreat from the world stage that has been going on in the last years. President Obama can begin to regain some of his credibility by taking a strong stand on sanctions against Russia and sticking to it. But if he doesn’t no one should be under the illusion that it won’t affect Obama’s ability to prevail in the Iran talks. The cost of Obama-style weakness and isolationism will not be cheap, either for U.S. allies or for an American people who must now understand what it is like to live in a world where no one respects or fears their government.

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Will the 2016 GOP Nomination Turn on Foreign Policy?

The “trading places” theme of the 2016 presidential election continues, with the latest indication that the Republicans have become the party of internal discord and dissent powered by a younger generation of politicians and voters while the Democrats have become the party of entrenched cliqueocracy. The New York Times reports today on its latest poll, conducted jointly with CBS News, on the political figures each party’s voters want to see run for president.

More than 80 percent of Democrats said they wanted Hillary Clinton to run, with only 13 percent saying they’d rather she not. That is, as the Times notes, “a level of interest in her that no other potential candidates – Democrat or Republican – come close to matching among their party’s voters.” More intriguing are the post-Bridgegate levels of interest in Republican candidates. The support for a Chris Christie candidacy is now ten points underwater. The candidates with the most voter interest on the right–surely having something to do with name recognition–are Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, each at about 40 percent.

The Times continues:

Thirty-two percent of Republicans say they want Senator Marco Rubio of Florida to run, although Mr. Rubio also seems to have fewer detractors than Mr. Bush or Mr. Paul (more do not know enough about him to say). Only 15 percent of Republicans said they did not want Mr. Rubio to run, compared with 21 percent for Mr. Paul and 27 percent for Mr. Bush. Twenty-four percent said they hoped Senator Ted Cruz of Texas would run, compared with 15 percent who said they did not want him to. Fifty-nine percent do not know enough about Mr. Cruz to say.

The poll did not ask about several other potential Republican candidates, including Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. No major candidates in either party have yet declared their candidacy, but several have taken steps indicating that they are seriously considering a run.

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The “trading places” theme of the 2016 presidential election continues, with the latest indication that the Republicans have become the party of internal discord and dissent powered by a younger generation of politicians and voters while the Democrats have become the party of entrenched cliqueocracy. The New York Times reports today on its latest poll, conducted jointly with CBS News, on the political figures each party’s voters want to see run for president.

More than 80 percent of Democrats said they wanted Hillary Clinton to run, with only 13 percent saying they’d rather she not. That is, as the Times notes, “a level of interest in her that no other potential candidates – Democrat or Republican – come close to matching among their party’s voters.” More intriguing are the post-Bridgegate levels of interest in Republican candidates. The support for a Chris Christie candidacy is now ten points underwater. The candidates with the most voter interest on the right–surely having something to do with name recognition–are Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, each at about 40 percent.

The Times continues:

Thirty-two percent of Republicans say they want Senator Marco Rubio of Florida to run, although Mr. Rubio also seems to have fewer detractors than Mr. Bush or Mr. Paul (more do not know enough about him to say). Only 15 percent of Republicans said they did not want Mr. Rubio to run, compared with 21 percent for Mr. Paul and 27 percent for Mr. Bush. Twenty-four percent said they hoped Senator Ted Cruz of Texas would run, compared with 15 percent who said they did not want him to. Fifty-nine percent do not know enough about Mr. Cruz to say.

The poll did not ask about several other potential Republican candidates, including Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. No major candidates in either party have yet declared their candidacy, but several have taken steps indicating that they are seriously considering a run.

It’s certainly true that a complete 2016 preview would include voter opinions on Scott Walker and probably Paul Ryan as well–even though the latter does not appear to be gearing up for a presidential run, he was on the ticket last time and has been a leader of the “reform conservatism” caucus in Congress. But this poll isn’t a zero-sum “who would you vote for” survey, so the results still tell us a lot.

There is more opposition to a Paul candidacy and a Jeb Bush candidacy than to either Rubio or Cruz. In the case of Bush, his last name–as he recently acknowledged–probably has much to do with it. The opposition to Paul is noteworthy. The Kentucky libertarian is far from the divisive figure his father was as a candidate and congressman. Paul’s brand of conservatism has even hinted at a bipartisan appeal, especially on privacy and criminal-justice reform, without earning him the dreaded RINO label.

In fact, the area of Paul’s ideology that would breed concern among the party faithful is his outlook on foreign policy. If that’s the case, it’s significant. Paul’s admirers have always thought the most potent threat within the GOP to Paul’s anti-interventionist foreign policy came from the party elites. That’s one way his supporters have dismissed opposition to his views on foreign affairs: as neoconservative holdovers from the Bush administration.

That’s never really been the case, though. Indeed, if Paul has establishment support in the GOP it’s among the Bakerite realists. There is something ironic about treating a younger generation of conservatives–the George W. Bush team, largely–as has-beens whose old road is rapidly aging while drawing conceptual support and guidance from the prior generation–the George H.W. Bush team, largely. That doesn’t mean Paul’s views are unpopular. They have plenty of support, as evidenced by the fact that while more voters want Christie to sit out this election than run, that’s not even close to true of Paul.

But this does get at one possible obstacle to Paul’s run for the nomination. He is unlikely to have the big-government opponent he’d prefer to contrast himself with. His popularity is due in part to the fact that libertarian economic policy has become more accepted in the GOP in recent years, but that same popularity deprives him of his opposite. Instead, he’s likely to run against a range of candidates who mostly agree with him–and the base–on economic matters but not on foreign policy. It would be a fairly unexpected twist if the post-Iraq and Afghanistan GOP primary turned on foreign policy, but it might just be heading in that direction.

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From Kabul to Kiev

A subtle shift in the way Americans process foreign affairs has become apparent, and it’s one that will likely have far-reaching ramifications. That shift presented itself in two news stories today. The first was Gallup’s report that “For the first time since the U.S. initially became involved in Afghanistan in 2001, Americans are as likely to say U.S. military involvement there was a mistake as to say it was not.” And in fact those who thought it was a mistake had the one-point edge in the poll.

It’s a bit jarring: the desire to be out of Afghanistan is one thing, but Americans saying they wish we never went into Afghanistan to root out the Taliban after 9/11 is really something else. It’s not war-weariness; it’s regret.

The other story was the continuing chaos in Ukraine. The death toll from the last two days of clashes in Kiev keeps rising, and the Ukrainian government seems to be losing even more control away from the capital. According to the New York Times, activists in Lviv, for example, claimed to have “taken control of the central government’s main offices in the region, resuming an occupation that had ended last Sunday. [An activist] said they had also raided the local headquarters of the state prosecutor, the Ukrainian security service and several district police stations.”

The crisis in Ukraine is getting far more attention. This is perfectly understandable: central Kiev is ringed by fire and the images, and the action they depict, demand attention. The Arab Spring earned this kind of coverage as well (if not more, at least in Tahrir Square). But the juxtaposition of the two stories is what makes the shift feel more pronounced: the Arab Spring, after all, had direct relevance to the war on terror. Americans today are having a very different conversation about matters of war and peace from the one we’ve been conducting for over a decade.

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A subtle shift in the way Americans process foreign affairs has become apparent, and it’s one that will likely have far-reaching ramifications. That shift presented itself in two news stories today. The first was Gallup’s report that “For the first time since the U.S. initially became involved in Afghanistan in 2001, Americans are as likely to say U.S. military involvement there was a mistake as to say it was not.” And in fact those who thought it was a mistake had the one-point edge in the poll.

It’s a bit jarring: the desire to be out of Afghanistan is one thing, but Americans saying they wish we never went into Afghanistan to root out the Taliban after 9/11 is really something else. It’s not war-weariness; it’s regret.

The other story was the continuing chaos in Ukraine. The death toll from the last two days of clashes in Kiev keeps rising, and the Ukrainian government seems to be losing even more control away from the capital. According to the New York Times, activists in Lviv, for example, claimed to have “taken control of the central government’s main offices in the region, resuming an occupation that had ended last Sunday. [An activist] said they had also raided the local headquarters of the state prosecutor, the Ukrainian security service and several district police stations.”

The crisis in Ukraine is getting far more attention. This is perfectly understandable: central Kiev is ringed by fire and the images, and the action they depict, demand attention. The Arab Spring earned this kind of coverage as well (if not more, at least in Tahrir Square). But the juxtaposition of the two stories is what makes the shift feel more pronounced: the Arab Spring, after all, had direct relevance to the war on terror. Americans today are having a very different conversation about matters of war and peace from the one we’ve been conducting for over a decade.

The shift away from wars that are winding down anyway is natural, but the focus on Ukraine should be more than a space-filler or the crisis flavor of the week. Indeed, as the right debates the future of conservative foreign policy after Iraq and Afghanistan, Ukraine (and situations like it) represents an integral part that debate. That fact was not lost on Marco Rubio, considered a 2016 contender, who put out a statement today standing with the Ukrainian opposition and urging sanctions on those involved in government-sponsored violence.

But it would be a shame if the debate on the right ends there. These sorts of events are likely to intrude on a presidential election. That happened in 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia. John McCain, an experienced foreign-policy candidate with a particular distaste for Vladimir Putin, responded forcefully. Barack Obama, woefully inexperienced and confused by the issue, put out a bland statement urging restraint on both sides. Within a couple of days, Obama had changed his mind and began echoing McCain. The Russia-Georgia war, and the fraught history of the post-Soviet sphere, intruded on the campaign and Obama was completely unprepared.

But it’s not just the possibility of such violent flare-ups surprising the candidates while on the campaign trail. Ukraine represents the kind of conflict that is complicated and nuanced and does not involve an American military component. The Obama administration’s spectacular diplomatic failures should serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of clinging to preconceived notions as a substitute for genuine curiosity about the world.

And how conservatives in general view such crises is probably as important now as it’s ever been. At no previous time have the Republican Party’s candidates been so responsive to the grassroots. (The party’s base might think those candidates are still not responsive enough, but that’s a different story.) Part of this has to do with the effect of social media and the breakdown of the GOP’s next-in-linism. Over at the Federalist, Ben Domenech gets at this point with regard to Rand Paul’s prospective candidacy:

Paul can control that aspect of how he presents himself. What he cannot control is the chaos of world events, which may in the intervening time send the Republican Party’s Jacksonians back to their traditional ways. Today protesters are filling the streets in Venezuela; the Iran talks are struggling; the administration’s Syria strategy is proving the clusterfail we all expected; Japan is brandishing the sword; the North Korean human rights debacle is well in evidence; and Ukraine is literally on fire. How the Republican Party’s base reacts to this instability, and to Obama’s meandering foreign policy, remains an open question.

Look how many of those subjects have almost nothing to do with war-weariness or domestic surveillance–the two issues on which Paul leads and which have dominated the foreign-policy conversation. They have to do with building alliances, sending messages, choosing sides, standing consistently on principle, practicing attentive diplomacy, and understanding America’s adversaries.

Essentially, they require a coherent worldview that is absent from the current Democratic administration and which will be applied to a world different enough from the one confronted by the last Republican White House. If conservatives are prepared to have that conversation even while ObamaCare remains a potent issue and the economy trudges along, it will be an illuminating presidential election. If not, it will be a missed opportunity.

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Why Bridgegate Won’t Clear Jeb’s Path

Chris Christie’s “bridgegate” scandal had such an impact on the emerging 2016 GOP primary field not only because Christie was considered the early frontrunner but because of why he was considered the frontrunner. In addition to his advantage as a governor and his success in getting Democratic and minority votes, Christie was the 2016 candidate who was moderate enough to win prominent establishment backing but still conservative enough to envision winning the nomination.

Thus while the primary fight would no doubt be bruising, it was conceivable that the other categories–libertarian, religious conservative, defiant conservative firebrand, etc.–would be represented by more than one candidate and split the remaining vote. Christie, then, had both no competition and too much competition. I think this scenario always overestimated Christie’s odds at winning the nomination because at some point the competition would thin out and supporters would coalesce around fewer candidates, but there’s no question it made him a strong contender.

If Christie is no longer the frontrunner, that means there’s an opening for a “moderate” with conservative credentials. And that, in turn, means we’ll have a resurgence in speculation over whether Jeb Bush will run. Politico catches the latest, which was Bush’s radio interview yesterday mulling it over:

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Chris Christie’s “bridgegate” scandal had such an impact on the emerging 2016 GOP primary field not only because Christie was considered the early frontrunner but because of why he was considered the frontrunner. In addition to his advantage as a governor and his success in getting Democratic and minority votes, Christie was the 2016 candidate who was moderate enough to win prominent establishment backing but still conservative enough to envision winning the nomination.

Thus while the primary fight would no doubt be bruising, it was conceivable that the other categories–libertarian, religious conservative, defiant conservative firebrand, etc.–would be represented by more than one candidate and split the remaining vote. Christie, then, had both no competition and too much competition. I think this scenario always overestimated Christie’s odds at winning the nomination because at some point the competition would thin out and supporters would coalesce around fewer candidates, but there’s no question it made him a strong contender.

If Christie is no longer the frontrunner, that means there’s an opening for a “moderate” with conservative credentials. And that, in turn, means we’ll have a resurgence in speculation over whether Jeb Bush will run. Politico catches the latest, which was Bush’s radio interview yesterday mulling it over:

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush says he will make a decision on whether to run for president in 2016 at “the right time” — later this year.

“I don’t wake up each day saying, ‘Now what am I going [to] do today to make the decision?’ I’m deferring the decision to the right time, which is later this year,” Bush said in an interview Wednesday with Miami CBS affiliate WFOR.

The brother of former President George W. Bush and son of former President George H.W. Bush said he will make up his mind based on whether he can run an uplifting campaign.

Jeb Bush is also pushing back, ever so diplomatically, against his mother’s comments last year that “there are other families” besides the Bushes, and it’s time to give someone else a turn. After Jeb’s brother, George W. Bush, was asked about the comments by Jay Leno (and said his brother would make a great president), CNN quoted Jeb’s response: “Even when I was a teenager, I’d listen to her respectfully and never always followed what she said, even though she was probably right. And now at the age of 60, I really feel I don’t have to listen to every word she says,” he said, drawing laughs. “At some point you got to make these decisions like a grown up.”

But his name came up on Leno’s show again this week, in a more positive mention:

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner made his first ever appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on Thursday, just to get some facetime with Leno before he leaves the show on Feb. 6. …

Asked what he thought of the upcoming presidential race in 2016, Boehner said, “I’m not endorsing anybody. But Jeb Bush is my friend and, frankly, I think he’d make a great president.”

Jeb Bush not only has the gubernatorial success and moderate credentials to match those of Christie, but he is also thought to have the crossover appeal to voters outside the GOP’s traditional support blocs that Christie does. So it’s reasonable to assume that Bush, who in fact has picked fewer fights with the grassroots than Christie has, could step into Christie’s shoes. But does that make him, like Christie was thought to be, the frontrunner?

Probably not, because Bush’s path to the nomination would be complicated in a few ways. The most obvious is his last name, and the GOP, with a bevy of young stars, will probably only be more hesitant to nominate Bush now that it appears Hillary Clinton is the Democratic frontrunner. One advantage Republicans would have over Clinton is that she represents a bygone era both for the country in general and the Democratic Party in particular, having already spent eight years in the White House of a president with a very different political agenda than the one she served as secretary of state. It’s doubtful the grassroots, so opposed to the GOP’s history of next-in-linism, would be satisfied with a Bush-Clinton election.

Additionally, Christie wasn’t the only prospective candidate standing in Jeb Bush’s way. The general consensus was that either Bush or Marco Rubio would run in 2016, but not both. They served the same state and would thus split their constituency, most likely ensuring neither would win. Would the party prefer to run Jeb or Rubio? The latter seems the better bet at this point.

Competing with the senators won’t be easy, considering Rand Paul’s popularity and Ted Cruz’s Texas network. And the governors, like Scott Walker and Mike Pence, would thrive against a wounded (or absent) Christie. Luck has never been on Jeb Bush’s side with regard to the presidency: no one doubts his qualifications, experience, intelligence, diligence, or sense of service, to say nothing of his accomplishments in office in areas like education reform. But even with Christie weakened by bridgegate, his path to the presidency is strewn with roadblocks.

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Three GOPs? No. Just One Opposition Party

It doesn’t matter how uninspired President Obama’s State of the Union speech turned out to be. The contrast between the pomp and circumstance of what is accorded the American equivalent of Queen Elizabeth’s annual visit to Westminster to open Parliament makes any opposition responses seem pale by comparison. If the official response by Washington state’s Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers wasn’t a flop like most of her predecessors, nor did it offer an in-depth refutation of the president, or anything more than a thumbnail sketch of what it is the GOP believes. The fact that the Republicans have in recent years produced more than one response, with the Tea Party offering up one last night by Senator Mike Lee separate from that of the traditional GOP, with Senator Rand Paul deciding to speak too, only serves to reinforce the impression of a Republican Party that is both divided and incoherent.

This feeds into the mainstream media narrative that the Republicans’ problems in the wake of their 2012 defeat as well as the beating they took (and largely deserved) for shutting down the government last fall. As New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal wrote in a humorous putdown of the GOP, the three parties represented last night could be labeled the “Stepford party” (a sexist reference to McMorris Rodgers speaking for the GOP establishment), “the storm the castle party” (Mike Lee speaking for the Tea Party), and “the non-threatening insurgent party” (Rand Paul speaking on behalf of the Rand Paul party). Rosenthal even took the opportunity to pile on by taking a cheap shot at Republicans by terming the ugly threat made to a reporter last night by New York’s Rep. Michael Grimm as the “class clown response” to the president.

But the idea that the GOP is hopelessly divided and would be unable to govern even if they were given the chance is a misreading of the situation or, as in the case of the liberal ideologue Rosenthal, mere partisan hyperventilating. What we saw last night was not a contrast between a united party and one rent by schisms. Rather, it was an illustration of the difference between being in power and not being in power.

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It doesn’t matter how uninspired President Obama’s State of the Union speech turned out to be. The contrast between the pomp and circumstance of what is accorded the American equivalent of Queen Elizabeth’s annual visit to Westminster to open Parliament makes any opposition responses seem pale by comparison. If the official response by Washington state’s Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers wasn’t a flop like most of her predecessors, nor did it offer an in-depth refutation of the president, or anything more than a thumbnail sketch of what it is the GOP believes. The fact that the Republicans have in recent years produced more than one response, with the Tea Party offering up one last night by Senator Mike Lee separate from that of the traditional GOP, with Senator Rand Paul deciding to speak too, only serves to reinforce the impression of a Republican Party that is both divided and incoherent.

This feeds into the mainstream media narrative that the Republicans’ problems in the wake of their 2012 defeat as well as the beating they took (and largely deserved) for shutting down the government last fall. As New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal wrote in a humorous putdown of the GOP, the three parties represented last night could be labeled the “Stepford party” (a sexist reference to McMorris Rodgers speaking for the GOP establishment), “the storm the castle party” (Mike Lee speaking for the Tea Party), and “the non-threatening insurgent party” (Rand Paul speaking on behalf of the Rand Paul party). Rosenthal even took the opportunity to pile on by taking a cheap shot at Republicans by terming the ugly threat made to a reporter last night by New York’s Rep. Michael Grimm as the “class clown response” to the president.

But the idea that the GOP is hopelessly divided and would be unable to govern even if they were given the chance is a misreading of the situation or, as in the case of the liberal ideologue Rosenthal, mere partisan hyperventilating. What we saw last night was not a contrast between a united party and one rent by schisms. Rather, it was an illustration of the difference between being in power and not being in power.

The problem here isn’t that Republicans are particularly querulous—though there’s no denying the divisions in the party—or inept at messaging. Rather the schisms we observe on the right are the natural product of lacking one unifying figure.

The contrast between Tea Party conservatives and the more mainstream conservatives in congressional leadership positions is only in part ideological. There are issues on which the two seem to part ways on matters of principle—immigration being one example. But for the most part, the establishment and the castle-burners don’t seriously disagree on basic issues. Indeed, on most fiscal and social issues there are few strong disagreements. The schisms stem not from any genuine disagreement about dislike of big-government measures, taxes, and spending but on the tactics best suited to combat the Democrats. The establishment rightly wishes to govern and to pick its fights with the liberals to lay the groundwork for future electoral victories. The castle-burners are frustrated by past defeats and want to lash out at the system. Indeed, it was just such despair about the GOP struggle against ObamaCare—an issue on which there is a remarkable consensus, if not unanimity among Republicans—that led to the government shutdown.

As was the case last night, the Republicans were unable to speak with one voice during the shutdown while Democrats were able to rally around the White House. The result, as with the State of the Union, is that a congressional Republican Party that actually has as little divergence of views on a host of important issues as their Democratic opponents comes across as a band of savages tearing one  another to pieces.

The remedy for this is simple. Win a presidential election. Once in opposition, the Democratic Party, whose divisions are today papered over by their deference to the president, will seem as angry and divided as the GOP does today. Its leaders will—as the Republicans do now—ruthlessly maneuver in order to put themselves in the strongest position for the next presidential election. Republicans will be forced, as Democrats are today, to bow to their president’s wishes and to play defense for an administration whose popularity will largely determine their own fates at the next midterm election.

Of course to get back to that position, Republicans will have to deal with the fallout from the shutdown and the misrepresentation, pounded home by the liberal media, that the GOP is aloof from the concerns of women and Hispanic voters. But, as Democrats learned in 2008, one good presidential candidate can make up for a multitude of political faults. Though no one who fits that description was on display last night for the Republicans, those members of the GOP nursing their wounds from another dispiriting beating in the Republican response to the State of the Union should remember that all they have to do to change places with the Democrats is to find someone who can beat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

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The NSA and a “Full Public Accounting”

So far most congressional Republican leaders have been pretty staunch in their support for the extraordinarily valuable intelligence-gathering programs that Edward Snowden has irresponsibly revealed. But there is another, more libertarian and isolationist faction of the party–the Rand Paul wing–which has a different take. Its views are evident from a resolution passed by the Republican National Committee via voice vote at its meeting in Washington.

The resolution in question denounces the NSA’s collection of metadata (recording connections among phone numbers but not the content of calls) by claiming that “the mass collection and retention of personal data is in itself contrary to the right of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution,” a view at odds with many (though not all) of the federal judges who have looked at the program.

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So far most congressional Republican leaders have been pretty staunch in their support for the extraordinarily valuable intelligence-gathering programs that Edward Snowden has irresponsibly revealed. But there is another, more libertarian and isolationist faction of the party–the Rand Paul wing–which has a different take. Its views are evident from a resolution passed by the Republican National Committee via voice vote at its meeting in Washington.

The resolution in question denounces the NSA’s collection of metadata (recording connections among phone numbers but not the content of calls) by claiming that “the mass collection and retention of personal data is in itself contrary to the right of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution,” a view at odds with many (though not all) of the federal judges who have looked at the program.

Going even further, the resolution claims that “unwarranted government surveillance is an intrusion on basic human rights that threatens the very foundations of a democratic society.” That conveniently ignores the fact that (a) our democracy has survived just fine over the past decade and (b) that the metadata program has been well warranted by the need to stop al-Qaeda from attacking us–something that (no coincidence) also hasn’t occurred over the past decade.

Based on these unwarranted assumptions, the RNC reaches a hyperbolic conclusion: “the Republican National Committee encourages Republican lawmakers to immediately take action to halt current unconstitutional surveillance programs and provide a full public accounting of the NSA’s data collection programs.” You mean the RNC feels that the “full public accounting” provided by Edward Snowden is insufficient? The Republican Party leaders would like to see more irresponsible disclosures of our most covert intelligence-gathering programs?

Republicans have already done a good job over the past decade in squandering their traditional advantage in the national-security arena–for example by supporting sequestration, which could have a devastating impact on our military readiness and by not supporting strong action to stop the bloodshed in Syria. Now a certain segment of the GOP appears determined to get to the left of President Obama in the war on terrorism.

Earlier I called this the Rand Paul wing of the GOP; it might just as well be called the Maxine Waters wing. When Republicans see eye-to-eye with the most extreme doves in the Democratic Party, it’s time for a gut check.

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Peter King’s Misguided Attack on Rand Paul

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s strengths as a prospective presidential candidate are generally well known, but there’s one that probably doesn’t get enough attention: he tends to get in his opponents’ heads all too easily. There was his filibuster over drones, which drew the accusation from John McCain that Paul was one of the party’s “wacko birds,” even when many who wouldn’t instinctively agree with Paul on the issue expressed admiration for his principled stand.

And there is his ongoing rivalry with Congressman Peter King, who is apparently contemplating challenging Paul for the GOP nomination in 2016. Paul’s criticism just before Christmas of National Intelligence Director James Clapper–who quite clearly misled Congress to avoid divulging classified information at a hearing–put King right out of the holiday spirit. “It’s an absolute disgrace,” King said of Paul. “He disgraced his office and he owes General Clapper an apology immediately.”

With all the revelations about the NSA data collection, it was unlikely to be the last installment of the King-Paul spats on the subject. And sure enough, King raised the ante yesterday on Fox:

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Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s strengths as a prospective presidential candidate are generally well known, but there’s one that probably doesn’t get enough attention: he tends to get in his opponents’ heads all too easily. There was his filibuster over drones, which drew the accusation from John McCain that Paul was one of the party’s “wacko birds,” even when many who wouldn’t instinctively agree with Paul on the issue expressed admiration for his principled stand.

And there is his ongoing rivalry with Congressman Peter King, who is apparently contemplating challenging Paul for the GOP nomination in 2016. Paul’s criticism just before Christmas of National Intelligence Director James Clapper–who quite clearly misled Congress to avoid divulging classified information at a hearing–put King right out of the holiday spirit. “It’s an absolute disgrace,” King said of Paul. “He disgraced his office and he owes General Clapper an apology immediately.”

With all the revelations about the NSA data collection, it was unlikely to be the last installment of the King-Paul spats on the subject. And sure enough, King raised the ante yesterday on Fox:

“Rand Paul does not know what he’s talking about,” King said after being asked to respond to Paul’s comments about the NSA. “And, Rand Paul is really spreading fear among the American people.”

“He was also was comparing General [James] Clapper to [Edward] Snowden,” King continued. “To me, he’s either totally uninformed or he’s part of that hate America crowd that I thought left us in the 1960s.”

“In any event, he doesn’t deserve to be in the United States senate for spreading that type of misperception and absolute lies to be honest with you,” the congressman concluded.

“Hate America”; “absolute lies”; “doesn’t deserve to be” a senator–these are strong words. They are also a disservice to the cause King is advocating, which is ostensibly a safe, strong America. And further, they are unnecessary. Based on the foreign-policy-related remarks from the other possible 2016 candidates, Paul appears to be in the minority on policy grounds–if not on the NSA, which isn’t particularly popular right now, then on a more holistic approach to foreign affairs.

Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and by all indications Mike Pence believe in a more robust American presence in the world and are more comfortable with the projection of U.S. power than Rand Paul. Yet perhaps that’s what is motivating King after all–a belief that he needs to separate himself from the pack.

But King risks setting himself apart from the pack in another way, and not one that puts him on the side of the majority. King’s comments, yesterday and in other settings, carry the tone of someone far less trusting of his fellow citizens than of the government’s vast bureaucracy. The truth is, each day brings stories of the harm the NSA leaks can do to U.S. national security as well as reasons to demand answers from the agency itself.

Today, for example, Robert Samuelson warns that the disclosures could greatly damage the public-private collaboration on cybersecurity that is so greatly needed right now: “This may be the Snowden affair’s most insidious (and overlooked) consequence.” Yet Lachlan Markay notes that according to an internal report, the NSA was warned about possible Snowdens way back in 1996, prompting Gary Schmitt to comment that while Snowden betrayed his country, he “had (unwitting) accomplices who either ignored implementing existing security measures or failed to establish the most obvious and rudimentary security plans for contractors.”

Rand Paul has often been far too credulous of Snowden and his antidemocratic, self-righteous duplicity. As I wrote recently, Snowden believes he has the right to break federal law when members of Congress give statements he finds insufficient, and his grasp of American history would embarrass a grade-schooler. Paul should know better.

But so should King. Even if King believes the government has the legal right to collect the meta-data involved in the NSA programs, is he not concerned that the agency has time and again implied it can’t safeguard or control the information it collects? Does he honestly believe that there’s no room in the United States Senate for a civil libertarian like Paul?

This discussion demands a serious defense of America’s post-9/11 national-security infrastructure that also grapples with the changing conditions on the ground and the growing public skepticism toward government. King’s unusually personal attacks on Paul haven’t provided it.

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Why the Budget Deal Deserves Conservative Support

Good grief. 

Reacting to the budget deal agreed to by Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray, Senator Rand Paul referred to it as “shameful.” Senator Ted Cruz informed us he found it to be “deeply concerning.” And Senator Marco Rubio said it would “make it harder for Americans to achieve the American dream.” 

So the geniuses who engineered the disastrous budget shutdown are now attacking an agreement that is  substantively defensible and politically wise.

To be sure, the budget deal is far from perfect. It doesn’t address the structural fiscal problems we face. But of course achieving such a thing is impossible so long as Barack Obama is president and Harry Reid is Senate majority leader. The issue is whether the deal is, on the margins, better than no deal. Answer: It is.

Basically the Ryan-Murray agreement allows minor increases in domestic discretionary spending in exchange for minor mandatory cuts in entitlement programs. To be specific: the deal gives back $63 billion over the next two years in domestic discretionary spending (including half of which goes for defense) in exchange for $85 billion in modest entitlement reforms over 10 years. The cuts are not as immediate as the spending increases–but they are cuts that are very likely to materialize and would not be easy to reverse. 

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Good grief. 

Reacting to the budget deal agreed to by Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray, Senator Rand Paul referred to it as “shameful.” Senator Ted Cruz informed us he found it to be “deeply concerning.” And Senator Marco Rubio said it would “make it harder for Americans to achieve the American dream.” 

So the geniuses who engineered the disastrous budget shutdown are now attacking an agreement that is  substantively defensible and politically wise.

To be sure, the budget deal is far from perfect. It doesn’t address the structural fiscal problems we face. But of course achieving such a thing is impossible so long as Barack Obama is president and Harry Reid is Senate majority leader. The issue is whether the deal is, on the margins, better than no deal. Answer: It is.

Basically the Ryan-Murray agreement allows minor increases in domestic discretionary spending in exchange for minor mandatory cuts in entitlement programs. To be specific: the deal gives back $63 billion over the next two years in domestic discretionary spending (including half of which goes for defense) in exchange for $85 billion in modest entitlement reforms over 10 years. The cuts are not as immediate as the spending increases–but they are cuts that are very likely to materialize and would not be easy to reverse. 

My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin, writing on NRO, makes the following points: Mandatory spending out-year cuts actually tend to go into effect, unlike discretionary spending out-year cuts, because mandatory programs remain in place since they are on auto-pilot. The Ryan-Murray deal would say that about 30 percent of the sequester over the next two years will be replaced with modest (and much more sensible) longer-term entitlement savings and other small reforms. Fully 70 percent of the sequester remains in place in this two years, and after those two years the entire sequester remains in place. And this is important to note, too: this proposed deal would put discretionary spending in 2014 and 2015, even with the temporary two-year increase in spending, below that of the first House Republican budget, which was passed in 2011 to the praise of conservatives. In addition, this deal prevents additional deep cuts to the Department of Defense, it doesn’t involve any increase in tax rates, and it restores the normal appropriations process (which will allow Congress to set priorities). And just for the sake of context: the $63 billion increase over two years amounts to less than nine-tenths of one percent of projected federal spending over that period.

Where Ryan did a huge favor for the GOP politically is striking a deal that avoids a government shutdown, which (as we saw last October) would only damage the Republican Party and the conservative cause, in part by deflecting attention away from the rolling disaster of ObamaCare.

The deal also takes into account political reality: It’s quite possible House Republicans–in part because of Republicans who are worried about deep cuts in defense, in part because of Republicans who want to spend more–might not have had the votes in their own conference to have kept the sequester in place. Ryan, knowing this, pushed for the best deal he could to keep limits on spending rather than have the whole thing fall apart later.

On substance this budget deal, even if one supports it, isn’t worth getting all that excited about. (Similarly, if one opposes it, it isn’t worth getting all that excited about.) But the GOP and the conservative cause are better served with it than without it. Which is why it deserves support.

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