Though Rand Paul didn’t set any records in his 13-hour filibuster, there was at least one era-defining moment. It may sound silly, but when fellow GOP Senator Ted Cruz helped sustain the filibuster by reading tweets about the filibuster that used the hashtag inspired by that very filibuster, he marked an interesting notch on America’s political timeline. It was also, as Tim Groseclose pointed out at Ricochet, an interesting “reverse” homage to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Beyond the social media aspect of it, there was also the relative youth of the senators taking part in the filibuster who went a long way yesterday to solidifying the generational shift currently underway in the GOP. This is not your father’s Republican Party was the very clear message (and not only because Marco Rubio quoted his favorite rap artists at one point). We have been, as have many in the world of political journalism, writing about the 2016 presidential race even as we add the caveat that it is early and things can (and probably will) change. But the basic assumptions outlining those articles have always included Rand Paul and Marco Rubio as two anchors of the opposing sides in the foreign policy debates that would unfold if both men choose to vie for the next Republican presidential nomination. As Rubio showed yesterday by supporting Paul’s filibuster, there will be some overlap in the political positions of the two senators. Paul is not his father; nonetheless, he and Rubio do seem to fundamentally disagree on America’s role in the world.
But the fact that Paul is not his father is very important to the debate. As Paul demonstrated yesterday, he is well informed on foreign affairs and he is not afraid to speak his mind. And while his father, Ron Paul, could easily be dismissed as out of the mainstream, a crank, and even a conspiracy theorist, Rand Paul cannot be so dismissed. And that means the foreign policy debate is no longer conservative vs. not conservative; it is going to be a robust debate within the conservative movement between two traditional spheres of thought.
The idea that America plays an indispensable role in the world with an active foreign policy and unabashed effort to support freedom and fair play, and is willing to sacrifice on behalf of our allies, is a conservative idea. Protecting the free market at home has long required the protection of the global free market, and defending American democracy has long required a willingness to recognize and fend off threats to our way of life from a full range of sources. As Irving Kristol wrote in 1976, “In foreign policy, neoconservatism believes that American democracy is not likely to survive for long in a world that is overwhelmingly hostile to American values, if only because our transactions (economic and diplomatic) with other nations are bound eventually to have a profound impact on our own domestic economic and political system.”
It’s also partly what was behind the famous “Lafayette, we are here!” declaration when General Pershing’s troops first arrived in France in the First World War. We recognize that our freedom came with the help of allies to our cause, and we can be counted on to remember that when the chips are down for our friends and allies.
It was easy for those of us who disagree with Paul’s outlook on executive authority in wartime, America’s muscular foreign policy, and the general prosecution of the war on terror to defend our position against the elder Paul; not so with Paul the younger. When you drop the conspiracy theories, the tendency to blame America first, and the military isolationism, what’s left is an outlook with roots in the American conservative tradition as well. After World War II, when America decided it was necessary to construct the modern national security state, it did so amidst a debate on the right. Those who supported the new national security apparatus argued that the free world, especially the U.S., invited threats and challenges by drawing down after each war and retrenching from the world stage. We could be taken by surprise and caught unprepared.
That may be so, responded those more skeptical of increased federal power, but this is the same argument that led to the New Deal. We were told the federal government must have far-reaching powers in place before a crisis actually occurs. Yet a bureaucracy that owes its existence to a certain mission will always seek out elements of that mission even when they are illusory. Thus, the federal government has been encroaching on American economic freedom ever since the New Deal because the bureaucracy it created must justify its continued existence by feeding on perceived threats to American economic stability. Isn’t that, they asked, in effect what is being argued here in favor of creating broad wartime powers that will extend into peacetime and may seek out threats where they don’t actually exist?
That is the question at the essence of Rand Paul’s foreign policy worldview. And it must be answered effectively by a new generation of conservative voices who have the attention of the grassroots and the base where older members of the party do not. Paul’s perspective would leave America less able to protect itself at home and abroad. But he can argue that position eloquently for 13 consecutive hours with the conservative movement cheering him on. Paul’s question may have been directed at the president and the attorney general, but it also likely drew the battle lines in the ensuing competition to lead the GOP.