After reflecting on Sen. Rand Paul’s reprise of his marathon 2013 Senate speech in opposition to the National Security Agency’s information collection and retention programs last week, Jonathan Tobin observed that the Kentucky senator now appears to be a largely spent force. Paul retains the unfailing support of his cadre of libertarian acolytes, of course, and his foreign and domestic policy prescriptions retain their appeal among a set of soft Republicans. But the Paul who spoke for 11 hours last week in opposition to the NSA’s programs looked less like a figure that could unite a major American political party and more like someone desperately trying to retain the support of those libertarians disappointed in him for deviating from the dogma to which his father adhered.
The most stalwart libertarian supporters of the Paul clan grew disenchanted with the prodigal son when it became apparent that he was vying to actually win his party’s presidential nomination, and was thus compelled to appeal to the broadest base of Republicans possible by adopting more moderate stances on matters relating to foreign affairs. For a moment, it appeared as though Paul might prove an attractive candidate for a majority of war-weary conservatives leery of the intrusive security state. But the wave of anti-government sentiment among conservatives that crested in 2013 was dashed against the rocks of renewed fears about Islamist terrorism, the rise of ISIS, and revanchism evidenced by state actors like Russia, China, and Iran. Today, rather than broadening his base, Paul clings as desperately as he can to that meager coalition that inspired nearly 11 percent of GOP primary voters to cast their ballots for former Rep. Ron Paul in 2012.
In an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Wednesday, Paul channeled his father when he was asked whether the present incarnation of ISIS, the successor organization to the defanged and exiled al-Qaeda in Iraq, would have arisen had the United States aggressively contained the Syrian Civil War in Syria in 2012-2013. “[Sen. Lindsey] Graham would say ISIS exists because of people like Rand Paul who said, ‘Let’s not go into Syria,’” Scarborough noted. “What do you say to Lindsey?”
“I would say it’s exactly the opposite,” Paul replied. “ISIS exists and grew stronger because of the hawks in our party who gave arms indiscriminately, and most of those arms were snatched up by ISIS.”
“These hawks also wanted to bomb Assad, which would have made ISIS’s job even easier,” he added. “They created these people.”
This is a rather juvenile and unconvincing effort to square a predetermined conclusion with contradictory evidence. The responsibility the West shirked in Syria was the maintenance of the prohibition on the battlefield use of chemical weapons, not in combating terrorism. President Barack Obama declined to mete out the consequences he promised Bashar al-Assad should the Syrian dictator continue to use chemical weapons, and instead relied on Russia to broker an arrangement that preserved their client in Damascus and helped Obama to save face. Nearly two years later, chemical weapons are regularly deployed in Syria, and the world is a more dangerous place as global actors test the parameters of America’s commitment to its word. Apparently, Rand Paul thinks that this is sound form of statecraft.
Paul’s instinctual aversion to interventionism may be principled if not wrongheaded, but it is a losing approach to the Republican presidential primaries.
“Nearly three-quarter of Republicans now favor sending ground troops into combat against the Islamic State, according to a CBS News poll last week,” a February report in the New York Times read. “And in Iowa and South Carolina, two early nominating states, Republicans said military action against the group was, alongside economic matters, the most important issue in the 2016 election, according to an NBC survey released last week.”
“When Pew asked respondents to choose between ‘using overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism around the world’ and ‘relying too much on military force to defeat terrorism creates hatred that leads to more terrorism,’ last October 57 percent of Republicans chose the overwhelming military force option; that number is now 74 percent,” the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman noted in that same month.
Regardless of what you think of Paul’s approach to governance, his is not a strategy aimed at winning the support of even a plurality of Republican primary voters. It is increasingly unclear, however, if Paul is even interested in securing the GOP nod. The junior Kentucky senator seems to find himself more at home in liberal enclaves than he does in the Republican Party’s geographic heartland. A recent Times dispatch noted that Paul recently found himself warmly received in a manner not often reserved for Republicans in the liberal bastion of Manhattan. “Paul played to the crowd,” the report read, noting that his speech “had echoes of the messages of his father.” The Bluegrass State senator is equally eager to reach out to atypical Republican voters in places like the Bay Area. Paul’s decision to open an office near San Francisco in order to appeal to libertarians in the Silicon Valley last year was framed as an outreach effort when, in reality, it’s more likely constituency maintenance.
Rand Paul is no longer waging a broad-based campaign to win the Republican nomination. His candidacy looks more and more like a factional effort to compel the Republican Party to embrace the libertarian foreign policy prescriptions of retrenchment and disengagement; policies already espoused by the present occupant of the Oval Office and which must be defended by his party’s chosen successor, Hillary Clinton.
The promise of Rand Paul’s campaign was that it would build his father’s political base into a mainstream force that would shift the GOP in a libertarian direction. While Paul’s adherence to his principles, as dangerous as they are, is laudable, they render him as niche a candidate as his father ever was.