Rand Paul is on the stump in Iowa this week and, according to the Wall Street Journal, he’s beating the bushes seeking to mobilize his father’s libertarian base to support his own 2016 presidential hopes. That’s smart politics for the Kentucky senator, who knows that if he can hold onto the 2012 Paulbots who turned out for his father Ron and add on to them a significant percentage of Tea Partiers and other Republican voters not attracted to other candidates, he can create a coalition that will vault him into the first tier of GOP candidates and give him an outside–but by no means insignificant–chance to win his party’s presidential nomination. But his attempt to make gestures toward what the New York Times refers to as the “middle” of the party while simultaneously winking at libertarians is telling us more about the contradiction at the heart of the Paul candidacy than about its viability.
As I wrote last week, Paul’s stand on vaccination revealed the main obstacle to his hopes for a libertarian coup that would topple his party’s establishment. Though he was at pains to try and show that he was personally supportive of vaccination, his rhetoric about choice and intrusive government was not just a wink in the direction of the activists who enabled his father to make respectable showings in both 2008 and especially in 2012. It was an indication that his core political philosophy remained deeply influenced by his father’s extreme libertarianism.
The same is true of his speeches this week about the need to reform the Federal Reserve and to change America’s approach to foreign policy to one less engaged in struggles overseas.
Though many Republicans are not unsympathetic to hostile rhetoric about the fed or even Ron Paul’s obsession about the Gold Standard, reviving these issues are about ginning up libertarian enthusiasm, not winning over non-libertarian conservatives. The same is true for Paul’s sounding the note of retreat from conflict in the Middle East.
In 2013 the supposed end of America’s long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the fading of terrorism as an issue seemed to present a golden opportunity for Paul to mainstream his neo-isolationist foreign-policy views. Calling himself a “realist” in the mode of the first President Bush, the senator believed disillusionment with George W. Bush’s wars and suspicion about the Obama administration’s continuance of much of that last Republican president’s national-security policies would enable him to rout the establishment that had disposed of his father’s challenges with ease.
But the notion that Republicans were ever to going to embrace a foreign-policy mindset that was actually closer to that of Obama than traditional GOP stands about a strong America was always something of an illusion. The rise of ISIS as a result of Obama’s decisions to abandon America’s foreign responsibilities jolted the nation back into reality. Though most do not want another land war in Syria and Iraq, there is a growing consensus, especially among Republicans, that the current crisis is a result of a failure of leadership and vision.
Conservatives are angry about having a president who reacts to terrorist atrocities with talk about moral equivalence to the West’s past. Obama’s failure is not merely tactical as the U.S. continues to struggle to come up with a war-winning strategy for dealing with ISIS and dabbles in appeasement of Iran. It’s that he can’t articulate American values in a coherent way so as to rally the country to the task of defeating these barbarians.
Paul has his virtues, but on this point he is particularly deficient. Since his views on foreign policy reflect Obama’s lack of conviction in the rightness of America’s cause abroad, he is in no position to make a coherent critique of the administration. While other Republicans seek to provide an alternative that speaks to this glaring problem, Paul is wandering the countryside in Iowa talking about what the Journal describes as a “less bellicose” foreign policy and seeking to make it harder for U.S. intelligence to seek out terrorists, not exactly the message most people want to hear when Islamist murderers are burning people alive and beheading American hostages.
That is exactly what Ron Paul’s supporters, many of whom haven’t been too happy with Rand’s tiptoeing toward the center in the last two years, want to hear. Ron Paul’s views are, of course, far more extreme than those of his son. Paul famously greeted the Republican victory in the midterms that his son worked so hard to help achieve by warning that it would mean more “neocon” wars. But while Ron Paul’s vision of American foreign policy is a carbon copy of what might be heard on the far left and is the sort of thing that got his supporters out to the polls, such ideas are anathema to the rest of the party.
The same is true of vaccination. For libertarians, the senator’s talk of making childhood vaccinations voluntary is catnip. But for the mainstream of his party, let alone the rest of the country, this is ideological extremism that is doing real damage to public health policy.
Paul thought he could romance mainstream Republicans while holding onto his father’s backers. That may have seemed like a viable plan in 2013. The political realities of 2015 have turned it into a fantasy and made his hopes for 2016 seem much more like a long shot than he may have thought. The contradiction at the core of his candidacy is proving too great for him to resolve.