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.