“How the mighty have fallen!” crowed a blogger for Reason, the libertarian monthly. It was the summer of 2013, a few months after Kentucky Senator Rand Paul had spent 13 hours filibustering President Barack Obama’s nomination of John Brennan for CIA director. Paul was incensed about the president’s use of unmanned aerial drones against suspected terrorists overseas and used the parliamentary tactic as a means of extracting answers from administration officials about odd hypothetical situations. Paul’s worries were outlandish—“That Americans could be killed in a café in San Francisco, or in a restaurant in Houston, or at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is an abomination,” he thundered from the well of the Senate—but that didn’t bother a Republican base eager to score points against a president it detested. Nor did it bother a mainstream media prone to view any national-security program with ardent suspicion.
Rand Paul was riding high. For his virtuous stand against an executive branch he characterized as hell-bent on obtaining near-tyrannical powers, numerous journalists likened him to Jimmy Stewart’s character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In three short years as a United States senator, Paul had gained mainstream traction and solidified his position as a serious contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. For this, libertarians at places such as Reason and the CATO Institute were beside themselves with joy. Finally, here was the vessel to carry into the mainstream the capital-L libertarian agenda: a hodgepodge consisting of drug legalization, social liberalism, foreign-policy noninterventionism, criminal-justice reform, and standard-issue Republican views on economics with an emphasis against corporatism. At their most effectual, libertarians have served as an uncomfortable appendage of the conservative movement. Usually, however, they prefer to play in their own sandbox, complaining about the philosophical impurity of Democrats and Republicans alike. Now, it seemed, libertarians might soon rule the roost.
A blog post on National Review’s website reporting on how “Paul’s rapid ascent and positions have alarmed many Republican hawks” sparked the Reason writer’s enthusiasm. “Behind the scenes,” National Review reported, “they’re worried that he has a shot at the nomination.” Paul, it seemed at the time, could wrest control of the GOP back from the “interventionist” and “globalist” establishment and return the party to its more humble, mind-our-own-business traditions.
Libertarians had good reason to be enthusiastic about Paul. His calls for reducing mandatory-minimum sentences, a less intrusive national-security state, and military retrenchment overseas hit their small-government sweet spots. Not only was Paul ideologically sound, but they believed his stances on criminal-justice reform (comparing the war on drugs to Jim Crow and introducing legislation that would restore voting rights to felons) and harsh criticism of the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping program (“We can’t have an intelligence community that can do whatever the hell they want,” he told voters in New Hampshire) would grant the GOP inroads into the African-American and youth constituencies, respectively. Trumpeting these traditionally libertarian causes, they said, was the wave of the future. Once the bailiwick of a handful of activists working in the ideological area where progressives and libertarians converge, these ideas finally had electoral salience in the wake of Ferguson and Snowden. Republicans have obviously not fared well in attracting black and youth voters in recent decades, and Paul’s fresh face, we were told, could refashion the party for a younger and more diverse electorate.
The liberal establishment has been complicit in hyping the narrative of Paul-the-insurgent, just as it was when his father, former Congressman Ron Paul, ran for president in 2008 and 2012. “I think he’s the only person who is sort of honed in on a message that could be appealing to the next generation,” former senior Obama aide Dan Pfeiffer told Buzzfeed last year, saying that Paul held special appeal for a Millennial generation “burned out on, more skeptical of politics than the previous one before them, more distrustful of establishments, with sort of a libertarian instinct.” A blogger for New York magazine, noticing the propensity of many scribes to label Paul “interesting,” wrote that “you have to wonder if Rand Paul has been called ‘the most interesting man in politics’ so many times because no one has figured what else to say about the guy.”
Until the emergence of Rand Paul, the highest-profile libertarian in America was his father, a longtime Texas congressman, perennial presidential candidate, and all-around crank. The elder Paul’s reputation had long been that of a righteous, if occasionally batty, public servant, willing to stand on principle even if it came at the cost of ostracism from his party and the furtherance of his political career. That generally warm perception changed, however, in 2008, when, reporting for the New Republic, I unveiled newsletters that Paul published under his name and that were, to his great profit, full of racial animus, homophobia, anti-Semitic bigotry, pro-militia whooping, and conspiratorial rabble-rousing.
That Rand was at least knowledgeable about the newsletters—if not engaged in their writing and production—is not idle speculation. From the beginning of his father’s political career, Rand was an enthusiastic member of the team. In the late 1970s, Rand, according to Vogue, “enlisted his brothers and sisters in one of his father’s congressional campaigns, drew up door-knocking maps, and studied voting returns and poll data.” He has lent credence to conspiracy theories championed by his father, such as claims that shadowy elites are attempting to subsume the United States into a “North American Union” with Canada and Mexico and that the United Nations is planning to confiscate privately owned handguns. Though it would not emerge publicly until last year, a video from 2009 in which Rand accused former Vice President Dick Cheney of singlehandedly leading the country into war for the sake of the defense contractor Halliburton revealed his true (conspiratorial) colors.
When Rand decided to leave ophthalmology and join the family business, he turned to his father (himself a medical doctor) for support. At the beginning of his campaign for Kentucky’s open Senate seat in 2009, Rand was, in the words of longtime Paul-family watcher Dave Weigel, then of Slate, merely “a fringe candidate with a mailing list.” But oh, what a mailing list it was. It is hard to think of an American political figure, barring presidents and Hillary Clinton, who has commanded such a devoted, nationwide following as Ron Paul. And even if one does include the presidents, whose shelf life expires after eight years, hardly anyone can match the lasting power of the elder Paul, who entered Congress in 1976 and mounted a half-serious candidacy for the presidential nomination of a major American political party 32 years later.
Federal Election Commission records from 2009 and 2010 indicate that Rand’s Senate campaign paid his father’s political organization $5,700 for “list rental” fees, an expenditure that may go down as one of the best value-for-dollar transactions in American political history. Of the 15,500 donors to Rand’s Senate campaign, fewer than 3,500 came from Kentucky. But even these numbers, impressive as they are, do not fully capture the position that the Paul family name bestowed upon Rand. Simply for being a Paul, Rand earned the support of countless thousands of the most die-hard political activists in the country, who traveled from all four corners to join phone banks, knock on doors, and attend rallies. This solid base of his father’s supporters, combined with the confluence of the burgeoning Tea Party, catapulted Rand into the United States Senate, where he quickly became the most talked-about freshman member.
It might say something about the questionable robustness of libertarianism as a governing philosophy that its two most recognizable figures are members of the same family. From the start, Rand was tagged as his father’s son, and he has dealt with the familial inheritance in a passive-aggressive manner. Rand is more than happy to associate himself with Ron when it is politically useful, and yet he becomes testy the minute reporters call out his father as a political liability. Trying to have things both ways is hardly shocking behavior for a politician, but it strikes at the serious problem inherent in Rand Paul’s presidential candidacy: He is a dove running for president in a party that has reasserted its hawkishness since his key moment of glory in 2013.
Shortly after becoming a senator in 2011, Rand introduced legislation calling for reductions in defense spending, troop size, and the number of overseas bases. “When we’re short of money, when we can’t do the things we need to do in our country, we certainly shouldn’t be shipping the money overseas,” he said, essentially adopting the talking point, usually made by Democrats during the George W. Bush administration, of “nation-building at home.” Later that year, he was a fervent opponent of establishing a no-fly zone in Libya to protect civilian populations in the country’s east from Muammar Gaddafi’s marauding forces.
One of the reasons Paul deserves to be called “interesting” is the way he keeps altering his course on controversial matters for what appear to be pragmatic considerations. Initially, he will present a position far from the mainstream and close to his father’s in both tone and substance, but after a time, he will shift his position to one more palatable to the party’s majority.
In foreign-policy terms, since 2014, this has translated into the enunciation of a more hawkish position. In the speech announcing his candidacy in April, Rand issued an uncharacteristically bombastic declaration about the war on terror. “The enemy is a barbarous aberration,” Paul said. “The enemy is radical Islam. I will not only name the enemy, I will do everything in my power, everything it takes to defend America from these haters of mankind.”
This is entirely attributable to shifting public sentiment. Up until quite recently, Rand Paul’s promises to dismantle the national-security state and reduce America’s global-leadership role seemed quite popular with GOP voters. In 2012, a Washington Post–ABC News poll found that, for the first time, a majority of Republicans believed that the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting. The following year, a bare majority of Republicans—53 percent—told the Pew Research Center that America “should mind its own business internationally,” a higher proportion than Democrats (46 percent). According to Pew, it was “the most lopsided balance in favor of the U.S. ‘minding its own business’ in the nearly 50-year history of the measure.” In early 2014, Rand was leading the polls in Iowa and was a strong contender nationally.
Paul’s surge seemed to indicate that the GOP had undergone a fundamental shift, one long hoped for by a liberal media establishment keen to portray a country fed up with the neoconservatives and their overseas adventures. But then a confluence of global events—Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, the rise of ISIS, and Iran’s march across the Middle East—confronted Americans with the stark reality of what a world of diminishing U.S. power looks like. Suddenly, the Paul boomlet, a brief indulgence and escape from history, was in danger of collapsing. Paul has tried to recalibrate, but the adjustments have been so drastic that he is in danger of alienating both his activist supporters and the regular voters whom this recalibration was meant to impress.
During the last presidential campaign, Rand Paul was a frequent critic of his own party’s nominee, Mitt Romney, though he did eventually endorse the former Massachusetts governor. After Romney said that, as president, he would not need a special authorization from Congress to use force in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, Paul wrote an article addressing the concerns of his supporters in “the liberty movement” entitled “Opposing Unconstitutional Wars.” Romney’s pledge to use military force against Iran, Rand wrote, represented a “misreading of the role of the president and Congress in declaring war.” He cited a curious artifact to make his point—curious, at least, for someone wanting to be president himself one day. To dispute Romney’s contention, Paul invoked the War Powers Act, a statute whose constitutionality is debatable and which has been the bane of every president, Republican and Democrat, since its passage in 1973 (which is why each and every one of them has ignored it, and why it has never been used successfully to stop an ongoing military operation). Later in the 2012 campaign, just a month before the election, Paul wrote a commentary for CNN that portrayed Romney as an irresponsible warmonger. “Both parties rush headlong into more places they don’t understand, exemplified Monday by Romney urging action to arm Syrian rebels and topple President Bashar al-Assad,” he wrote.
The domestic analogue to Paul’s calls for shrinking American influence abroad is his critique of the American “national-security state,” which differs little from the analysis offered by anti-secrecy activists such as Glenn Greenwald. Last March, Paul traveled to a place few, if any, Republican presidential contenders would venture: the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. There, he spoke of “dystopian nightmares” raised by the specter of “an intelligence community drunk with power, unrepentant, and uninclined [sic] to relinquish power.” He has filed a class-action lawsuit against the National Security Agency over its domestic-spying programs. And earlier this year, he spoke at a conference of libertarian students to which fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden delivered a video-linked address from his headquarters in Moscow.
This gesture to the far left paralleled a strange incident involving Rand Paul and the far right. In the summer of 2013, around the same time he was earning plaudits from Reason for overtaking the other presumptive GOP presidential candidates, the Washington Free Beacon revealed that a member of Rand’s Senate staff and the co-author of a book he wrote about the Tea Party had an alter ego: the “Confederate Avenger,” a pro-secessionist radio host who donned a Stars ’n’ Bars luchador mask while raving about how Abraham Lincoln (a “sick bearded bastard”) deserved his assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth. Jack Hunter (the Confederate Avenger’s real name) had previously worked as the official blogger on Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign, where, even if he had been vetted, such views would hardly have made him an outlier. For anyone remotely familiar with the Ron Paul newsletters or the characters he had surrounded himself with over the course of his long career, Hunter’s presence in that milieu could not have come as a surprise.
It would be more than two weeks after the Beacon’s scoop appeared that Hunter quit Rand’s Senate office staff. Had an individual with such baggage been exposed working for any other politician, he would have been fired immediately. Rand Paul’s decision to stand by his neo-Confederate collaborator hearkened back to his father’s refusal to distance himself from those who worked on his newsletters. It is entirely of a piece with Paul-family practice, which is to tiptoe the line separating their crank supporter base from the mainstream in hopes of maintaining the fervent support of the former while simultaneously appealing to the latter.
What distinguishes Paul the younger, however, is the degree to which he is willing to obfuscate what has made him viable: the connections to Ron and the specific strand of “Old Right” political philosophy that is more accurately described as “paleoconservative” than libertarian. Most modern-day libertarians do not give much thought to the complexities of foreign policy; anti-statists, they are focused on domestic matters and are ill-equipped to study the way in which states interact with one another. But paleoconservatives harbor deeply held convictions about America’s role in the world, and many of them place foreign policy at the center of their thought. For paleos, it is not that American meddling overseas causes more problems than it solves (though the paleocons certainly subscribe to that belief); it is that America itself is a profoundly (perhaps irredeemably) immoral power, which has no right, never mind the wherewithal, to global leadership.
Rand Paul has been careful to avoid the combination of moral equivalence and outright defense of tyranny overseas that characterize his father’s outbursts on foreign policy. When a crisis erupts overseas, Rand’s position usually follows a version of the outside-to-mainstream trajectory I described earlier. He begins with a position intended to seem more “cautious” than those of other Republicans, but follows that with a gradual, and then at times abrupt, swing to those very views he had once criticized so vehemently.
Take his views on Russia. Initially, Paul followed his instincts and lashed out at his Republican colleagues. “Some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Russia all the time, and I don’t think that is a good idea,” he sniffed to the Washington Post last February, days after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to neighboring Russia in the aftermath of a popular uprising against Russian meddling.
America should have “respectful relations” with Russia, Rand said, attempting to portray himself as the adult among a cabal of hotheaded Cold Warriors.
Several weeks later, after Putin brazenly annexed the Crimean Peninsula and began fomenting a war in eastern Ukraine, Rand—no doubt recognizing the turning tide in public opinion—changed his tune. Now, he said, the United States must assume “our role as global leader” to oppose “Russia’s latest aggression.” Moscow was guilty of “violating the Budapest Memorandum, and Russia must learn that the U.S. will isolate it if it insists on acting like a rogue nation.” In calling on the United States to “isolate” a “rogue” nation for “violating” international norms, Rand Paul suddenly sounded like a lifetime subscriber to Commentary. All in all, it was a far cry from the rhetoric of Ron and his acolytes, who allege that if there is any rogue state in the world whose depredations must be countered, it’s our own.
But, perhaps suspecting that his core base of supporters would by mystified by this newly hawkish stance, Rand returned the very next day with an op-ed once again bashing his colleagues as too aggressive. “What we don’t need right now is politicians who have never seen war talking tough for the sake of their political careers,” he wrote, using a cliché (warmongers don’t have service records) frequently used by isolationists against their more internationalist antagonists.
Rand’s responses to the rise and forward march of ISIS also expose the tenuousness of his balancing act. At first, he appeared to agree with his father, who has said (in the course of an interview with Russia Today) that fighting the Islamic State would be “foolish.” Last June, in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal entitled “America Shouldn’t Choose Sides in Iraq’s Civil War,” Rand Paul questioned whether launching airstrikes against ISIS targets would effectively render us “Iran’s air force.” To be sure, many Republican critics of the president’s ISIS strategy have also questioned the wisdom of such strikes, but their criticism is usually a component of a broader critique of President Obama’s refusal to entertain the notion of fighting Bashar al-Assad or his Iranian sponsors. In the absence of a policy aimed at regime change in Damascus, they argue, taking on ISIS does indeed accrue to the benefit of Assad and the Mullahs.
Perhaps to distinguish himself from President Obama, whose foreign policy is increasingly unpopular not only with Republican primary voters but also most Americans, Paul has concocted an alternate history in which the United States armed and equipped Syrian rebels to fight Assad—the very same rebels who would later go on to form ISIS. Again taking to the pages of the Journal, Paul spun a story last August entitled “How U.S. Interventionists Abetted the Rise of ISIS.” In reality, the Obama administration has done pitifully little to support the rebels, but Paul wrote as if a concert of liberal interventionists in the White House and neoconservative critics outside it had collaborated to back the Sunni forces that later transmogrified into the Islamic State. “ISIS is big and powerful because we protected them in Syria,” Paul has said elsewhere, a claim that mirrors Syrian-regime propaganda and is completely divorced from reality.
So Rand Paul, while arguing against “choosing sides” in Iraq, has effectively advocated just that in neighboring Syria—and the wrong side to boot. The same month in which he had argued that no single faction in Iraq was better than any other, he told CNN that “if we were to get rid of Assad, it would be a jihadist wonderland in Syria.” Two months later, he said he was not “completely opposed to helping with arms or maybe even bombing” in Syria—though it was unclear just whom it was he wanted to ship arms to, or bomb. The following month, he seemed to clarify matters when he told Sean Hannity: “The two allies that have the same goal would be Iran and Syria, to wipe out ISIS. They also have the means and the ability and they also have the incentive to do so because Assad’s clinging for power and clinging for life there.” So in the span of just two months, Rand went from being a neutralist on the conflict in Syria and Iraq, to taking the position that Washington ought to support Assad and his Iranian allies in both countries.
Rand Paul constantly tries to draw distinctions between himself and other Republican leaders in the realm of foreign policy and military matters while squarely placing himself within the mainstream foreign-policy traditions of American conservatism. Thus, a speech delivered to the Heritage Foundation in 2013 was entitled “Restoring the Founders’ Vision of Foreign Policy.” In it, Paul claimed the mantle of Reagan, arguing that the 40th president brought about the end of the Cold War “not by ‘liberation’ of captive people but by a combination of don’t-mess-with-us language and diplomacy, not inconsistent with [George] Kennan’s approach.” Missing from this analysis were mentions of Reagan’s massive increases in defense spending as well as arming of anti-Communist insurgents, something that would seem to violate Kennan’s recommendation, praised by Rand in the very same address, of “noninterference in the internal affairs of another country.” Last April, attempting to signal his mainstream credibility, he brought on former Reagan State Department official Richard Burt and former International Republican Institute head Lorne Craner as unpaid advisers. Several months later, in a major foreign-policy address at the Center for the National Interest, Rand proclaimed himself a “conservative realist.”
In reality, Rand’s views on foreign policy are best characterized not as isolationist or realist or noninterventionist, but dichotomous—that is, when they’re not entirely incoherent. It is not only his hawkish critics who feel this way. “For the life of me, I can’t figure out what he really believes—where he really stands, especially when it comes to foreign policy,” wrote Justin Raimondo, editor of Antiwar.com. Rand’s multifarious inconsistencies derive from a remarkable ability to contradict himself, occasionally within the same day. Last September, Paul questioned whether ISIS represented a “threat” to the United States. Later that same evening, he told the Associated Press that he would “lay out the reasoning of why ISIS is a threat to our national security and seek congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily,” and then he went on Sean Hannity’s show and declared, “Yeah, without question, they are a threat.”
Similarly, just a month after hysterically warning during his filibuster about Americans’ being targeted with Hellfire missiles in their backyards, Paul nonchalantly told Fox News, “If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and 50 dollars in cash, I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him.” Never mind the inconsistency. Being struck with deadly force for robbing a liquor store of $50 would seem a bit harsh, particularly for a man touted as some crusader for reform of the criminal-justice system. Likewise, after U.S. drone strikes led to the deaths of two Western hostages in April, Paul’s remarks were tepidly supportive. “There is a valuable use for drones, and as much as I’m seen as an opponent of drones, in military and warfare, they do have some value,” he said.
It is hard not to think that over the past year, as a series of foreign-policy crises have mounted, Rand has tried to pull a fast one on Republican voters, posing as a mainstream conservative and all but abandoning views he expressed in the recent past. In January, he scolded fellow Republican challengers Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz for attempting to “ruin” President Obama’s Iran diplomacy, imputing a hunger for war on the part of those who critique any aspect of the administration’s negotiating strategy. “Are you ready to send ground troops into Iran? Are you ready to bomb them?” he asked. In a New Yorker profile last year, Rand dismissed Republicans who have taken his foreign-policy views to task. “Most of the criticism has come from people who would have us involved in fifteen wars right now,” he scoffed.
Fast-forward two months, when Paul attached his name to an open letter initiated by freshman Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, informing the Iranian regime that any deal reached by the president concerning their nuclear program that does not achieve the approval of Congress can just as easily be revoked after President Obama leaves office. The letter, a mere recitation of facts about America’s tripartite system of government and the function of its co-equal branches, was derided by liberal commentators and administration officials as an unprecedented attack by traitorous partisans on the prerogatives of the executive branch. Some went so far as to accuse the senators of violating the Logan Act, a rarely invoked, 18th-century statute prohibiting American citizens from engaging in unauthorized negotiations with foreign governments.
“For Paul to join in this sabotage attempt was intellectually indefensible—and entirely in character,” Raimondo of Antiwar.com lamented. Raimondo is right to be confused. After all, it wasn’t long ago that Paul was saying things like, “Our national security is not threatened by Iran having one nuclear weapon,” a line he uttered at a rally for his father in 2007.
Ultimately, for a clue as to how Rand views the world, and, more important, how he might govern, we should probably look no further than the Paul family itself. “The difference is purely in implementation,” Ron Paul’s eldest son, Ronnie, said recently on a libertarian podcast, in a discussion of his father’s and brother’s respective worldviews. “So they’ve taken different paths. Do you take little pieces at a time, do you try for the whole thing at one time?”
The latter approach accurately describes Ron’s strategy, which evidently didn’t work. And so Rand, a far more calculating politician, is opting for the piecemeal option—seeking to fool the electorate with moderate rhetoric while dog-whistling to his radical base. Lest there be any doubt that both “paths” lead to the same result, Ronnie reiterated that there “would be no difference” between a hypothetical Ron and Rand presidency, as “the end goal, without a doubt, is the same.”
Rand himself has admitted as much. Asked in 2009 by the conspiracy-theorist, radio shock-jock Alex Jones whether he was a “chip off the old block” and if “your policies are basically identical to your father,” Rand answered: “I’d say we’d be very, very similar. We might present the message sometimes differently…I think in some ways the message has to be broadened and made more appealing to the entire Republican electorate, because you have to win a primary.”
Rand is now trying to win those primaries, but unfortunately for him and us, the extended annus horribilis in world affairs that began in March 2014 with the Crimean annexation continues to this day. Thirteen-hour rants warning about the president’s dispatching drones to take out American citizens sipping their frappuccinos may have delighted the GOP base in the summer of 2013, but the rise of ISIS, the return of conventional war to the European continent, and expanding Iranian hegemony have made clear the danger of a world without American global leadership—and simultaneously revealed the unseriousness of Rand Paul.
Once the fiercest Senate critic of mass surveillance, Rand offered no criticisms of the Patriot Act’s reauthorization, which continues the NSA’s controversial call-records program1. In March, he introduced an amendment calling for an addition of some $190 billion to the defense budget—a 16 percent increase. These were surprising moves from the supposed scourge of the national-security state who not long ago was demanding the “draw-down and restructuring of the Department of Defense.”
To be considered a real contender for the Republican presidential nomination, Paul knows he would have to expand significantly upon his father’s core base of support; indeed, the whole gist of the Rand Paul phenomenon is that he can appeal to people both within and beyond his father’s narrow base.
This helps explain why the media treat him with such earnestness, more than they would any other gadfly candidate. Writing recently in the New York Times, campaign reporter Jim Rutenberg averred that Rand’s meticulous delegate strategy rivals that of his opponents. “In a close-fought, state-by-state contest between two or more competitive candidates, the campaign that best understands the intricacies of delegate allotment will have a real edge—and at this point, that campaign is almost certainly Paul’s.”
But it appears that Paul’s adoption of more mainstream conservative views is pushing away that core base of supporters and sowing doubts in the rest of us about the sincerity of his beliefs. Reason editor Matt Welch, a frustrated admirer of the Kentucky senator, has accused him of “strategic slipperiness on foreign policy.” As of now, Rand is polling at about 10 percent in both Iowa and New Hampshire, states where his father won 21 and 23 percent of the vote respectively in 2012, during an election year in which there was really only one serious Republican contender. This cycle, there are several.
Ultimately, the problem for Paul is the same as it was for his father, which is that the GOP remains the party of foreign-policy hawks, a tendency that has become even more pronounced over the past year thanks to the perception that Obama has weakened America’s role in the world. A poll conducted in April found a plurality of GOP primary voters (22 percent) identifying foreign policy as their main concern, meaning that Paul’s strength among party faithful—shrinking the size of government—simply has less relevance. This is part of a trend among the broader electorate; a January Pew poll reported that, for the first time in five years, an equal number of Americans say that defending the country from terrorism is as important a national priority as strengthening the economy. Sixty-seven percent of all voters, according to a March poll, support bombing Iran if it is the only means of preventing Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. For months, attacks on the president’s approach to world affairs—incoherence on ISIS, hostility to Israel, solicitousness toward Iran, nonchalance and weakness in contrast to Putin’s determination and bravado—have been the biggest applause lines at Republican candidate forums. Yet these criticisms, noticeably, haven’t been coming from Rand Paul. That’s because he cannot, given his own policy tergiversations and ideological baggage, utter them convincingly. He is the candidate for voters who believe that the NSA and police brutality present greater threats to the United States and its interests than Vladimir Putin and ISIS. Such people tend not to vote Republican.
As long as the liberal world order continues to decline, so will Rand Paul’s share of the vote. How the mighty have fallen, indeed.
And What of Rand Paul and Israel?
Aware of his father’s antipathy toward the Jewish state (Ron Paul once called the Gaza Strip a “concentration camp” in an interview with an Iranian state-funded television network), and equally cognizant of the GOP base’s rock-solid support for it, Rand set out early to prove his pro-Israel bona fides. In 2013, he visited Israel at the behest of an evangelical Christian organization and concluded that the controversy of settlements in the occupied territories is “none of my business.” Since his visit, he has repeatedly tried to out-do other Republican figures in expressing support for Israel, going so far as to say that “any attack on Israel will be treated as an attack on the United States.”
Rand’s effusive praise for Israel may indeed be heartfelt. Just as likely, however, is that it’s overcompensation stemming from a misstep early in his senatorial career. In 2011, the freshly minted senator released a proposed budget drastically lower than the one offered by the GOP leadership. One sector in particular was headed for the chopping block: foreign aid. Though it represents a miniscule part of the overall federal budget, most Americans think foreign aid actually constitutes a major outlay, and Paul seized upon this misconception to burnish his reputation as a limited-government man. Paul proposed cutting foreign aid—all of it. That necessarily included cutting aid to Israel.
Eliminating foreign aid—everything from Meals Ready to Eat parachuted into the grateful hands of starving famine victims to anti-encryption software used by civil-society activists living under authoritarian regimes—is an unserious policy idea. But morally and strategically indefensible as such a populist feint might be, it was intellectually consistent with the broad outlines of Rand Paul’s worldview. But as with many of the positions he initially adopted, the younger Paul found it necessary to backtrack on his avowal to cut all foreign aid, and then he denied ever having made it in the first place. Facing criticism for his views from critics left and right, he then moved to the political center, calling for a freeze in foreign aid at current levels. As for Israel, he later voted to increase its aid level, a move he touted to his supporters.
Several years later, Rand realized a cost-free way to appeal to both pro-Israel voters as well as isolationists. He introduced a bill, cleverly entitled the “Stand with Israel Act,” that would eliminate all aid to the Palestinian Authority unless it met a certain set of conditions. Every mainstream pro-Israel organization (not to mention the Israeli government itself) opposes such a move, given the security cooperation that exists between the Israelis and the U.S.-trained Palestinian security forces. Paul’s exploit was aimed at earning the admiration of pro-Israel voters as well as isolationists. Clever, but a publicity stunt and nothing more.
1 Paul did mount a challenge to the Patriot Act on the Senate floor on May 20, after this article went to press.