Commentary Magazine


Topic: Rand Paul

Rand Paul is Running for the Wrong Party’s Nomination

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.

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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.

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Rand’s Sad Tale of Two Filibusters

It’s hard to recapture the magic the second time around. As Senator Rand Paul is realizing this week, that’s cliché applies as much to politics as it does for romance. As James Kirchick explains in a major piece for the magazine called “The Dangerous Unseriousness of Rand Paul,” a 2013 filibuster about drone policy transformed the Kentucky libertarian from cranky extremist Ron Paul’s son to a serious contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. But with his candidacy failing to get much of a boost from his formal announcement and finding himself stuck in the middle of the pack in the large GOP field, Paul tried the filibuster trick again. It was, just like the first one, an impressive performance. But it’s unlikely to have the same effect. In 2013, even Republicans like Marco Rubio who basically disagreed with him on the policy question felt compelled to offer him some support. This time his biggest cheerleader was the editorial page of the New York Times. That not only demonstrated Paul’s basic affinity with the left on foreign policy but also showed that his moment had passed. Where his first filibuster showed he had transcended his father’s base, this one illustrated the fact that he has been forced to fall back on it in order to revive his flagging candidacy.

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It’s hard to recapture the magic the second time around. As Senator Rand Paul is realizing this week, that’s cliché applies as much to politics as it does for romance. As James Kirchick explains in a major piece for the magazine called “The Dangerous Unseriousness of Rand Paul,” a 2013 filibuster about drone policy transformed the Kentucky libertarian from cranky extremist Ron Paul’s son to a serious contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. But with his candidacy failing to get much of a boost from his formal announcement and finding himself stuck in the middle of the pack in the large GOP field, Paul tried the filibuster trick again. It was, just like the first one, an impressive performance. But it’s unlikely to have the same effect. In 2013, even Republicans like Marco Rubio who basically disagreed with him on the policy question felt compelled to offer him some support. This time his biggest cheerleader was the editorial page of the New York Times. That not only demonstrated Paul’s basic affinity with the left on foreign policy but also showed that his moment had passed. Where his first filibuster showed he had transcended his father’s base, this one illustrated the fact that he has been forced to fall back on it in order to revive his flagging candidacy.

Let’s give due credit to Paul for a bravura performance on the floor of the Senate as he sought to rally opposition to renewal of the Patriot Act. Just as he was in his first filibuster, he was articulate, passionate and principled. So why can’t it rally conservatives to his side the same way they did before?

The first and most obvious reason is that this is a different moment in time. In 2013, even many on the right though President Obama was right when he spoke of al-Qaeda and Islamist terror as having been licked. Today, Americans know that not only are the Islamists as dangerous as ever, but ISIS now controls much of Iraq and Syria and is expanding elsewhere. The idea that the terror threat is overstated or doesn’t require the country to empower its security apparatus some leeway for spying doesn’t have the same appeal today as it did two years ago.

It is true that many on the right are cynical about government, and it’s hard to disagree with Paul when he says that if you give it power, abuse is sure to follow. That’s an argument that is easy to make with a president who is prepared to act outside the law on so many issues as Barack Obama has done. But if you’re seeking the nomination of a party whose core foreign policy beliefs are rooted in intense Ronald Reagan-style patriotism and belief in a strong defense, ranting against the National Security Agency isn’t necessarily the formula for success. That is especially true at a time when the terrorists they are tasked with fighting are burning and beheading people and taking over countries.

This is not just because his attacks on the NSA and the Patriot Act are wrongheaded. The NSA has not acted improperly nor is the Act unconstitutional. But it goes deeper than that.

Rand’s problem is that the libertarian surge of 2013 has ebbed. That’s not because conservatives no longer care about personal liberty or think the government can always be trusted. But it hasn’t been lost on most Republicans that his stands on foreign policy are much closer to those of Bernie Sanders and the left wing of the Democratic Party than they are to those of the rest of his party. Like the left, his basic instincts are to suspect American power rather than to think of it as a force for good. Like the left, he believes the U.S. should shy away from confronting forces of evil rather than standing up to them.

Yet the most discouraging thing about the filibuster for Paul’s supporters is that it showed that he has failed to meet the basic assumption that most of us had about him two years ago. Back then, even those of us who were critical about him assumed that he was about to break through to mainstream support and expand beyond the libertarian base he inherited from his father. But as the polls show, it hasn’t happened. Indeed, given the stiff competition for Tea Party and even libertarian-oriented voters, he can’t even count on doing as well as Ron Paul did in 2012. Just as ominous for his chances is the fact that many of those Paulbots are unhappy with Rand’s attempt to shift to the center away from hardcore libertarian positions on foreign policy issues as he maneuvered for the presidential race. The filibuster was an attempt to rally that base.

That may well work, and if it does it might give him a fighting chance in a crowded field where none of the contenders can claim to have more than a fraction of the GOP electorate. But even if it does, it still leaves him far short of the support he needs to ultimately win the nomination. Rather than recapturing the magic, the filibuster confirmed it is gone. If he were really on track to be a potential nominee he would have transcended stunts like filibusters. All it proved was that Paul is still only a factional leader rather than someone with the potential to unite his party, let alone lead it to victory against the Democrats.

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Rand Paul’s Worst Case Against the PATRIOT Act: It’s Unpopular,So Gut It

On Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul took the floor of the U.S. Senate to reprise his marathon speech in opposition to the metadata collection and warehousing programs that were exposed as part of the PATRIOT Act in 2013. Those programs were revealed in documents leaked by NSA defector and current beneficiary of Russian hospitality, Edward Snowden. While speaking in opposition to those programs, Paul made the claim that the American public is with him. But are they? The data suggests that it might not be true that the nation is standing with Rand as they were two years ago.

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On Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul took the floor of the U.S. Senate to reprise his marathon speech in opposition to the metadata collection and warehousing programs that were exposed as part of the PATRIOT Act in 2013. Those programs were revealed in documents leaked by NSA defector and current beneficiary of Russian hospitality, Edward Snowden. While speaking in opposition to those programs, Paul made the claim that the American public is with him. But are they? The data suggests that it might not be true that the nation is standing with Rand as they were two years ago.

Paul’s arguments against these programs then, as they are now, are not entirely without merit, but a debate over on the virtue of the various information netting and retention programs contained within that post-9/11 counterterrorism bill is beyond the scope of this post. Certainly, Paul’s contention that these programs deserve public scrutiny is not unwarranted. They have been subject to precisely the scrutiny Paul recommends for nearly 24 months. Moreover, Paul would not have had the opportunity to mount a pseudo-filibuster in opposition to these programs today if a federal court had not determined that the PATRIOT Act’s information gathering programs must be approved individually and not, as Sen. Mitch McConnell had liked, as a blanket reauthorization of that sprawling counterterrorism law.

None of this is to say that Paul’s arguments against the National Security Agency’s sweeping data collection powers are baseless. He made a rather compelling argument, in fact, when he contended that the use of information obtained via NSA surveillance programs that was used during the prosecution of a criminal case (albeit against a terror suspect) exceeds the bounds of the powers granted to the government by the PATRIOT Act.

But for all of Paul’s compelling arguments, he also made more than a few unconvincing claims designed to poison the public against the NSA’s programs. Perhaps the most risible contention Paul made in opposition to the NSA’s information gathering programs is that they should be repealed because they are simply unpopular.

“I think if you look at this and you say, ‘Where are the American people on this?’” Paul asked. “Well over half the people, maybe even 60 percent of the people, think the government has gone too far.”

“But if you want an example of why the Senate or Congress doesn’t represent the people very well, or why we’re maybe a decade behind, I’ll bet you it’s 20 percent of the people here would vote to stop this. To truly just stop it,” the senator contended. “At the most.”

“Whereas it’s 60, 70 percent of the public would stop these things,” Paul continued, citing an ever-increasing majority of the public that is supposedly opposed to the NSA’s programs.

“You’re not well-represented,” he added. “I think the Congress is maybe a decade behind the people. I think it’s an argument for why we should limit terms. I think it’s an argument for why we should have more turnover in office, because we get up here and we stay too long and we get separated from the people.”

Yes, senator, lawmakers in Congress who are ostensibly privy to classified intelligence briefings are on average more protective of the NSA’s surveillance programs than the general public. That is not a mark against these programs, and certainly no argument in favor of term limits; it’s an argument in their favor.

As for Paul’s claim that somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of the public would do away with the NSA’s surveillance programs if they had the chance, it’s hard to find recent data that supports this assertion that does not result from surveys commissioned by the ACLU. A recent Pew Research Center poll paints a far more complex picture of how the public views the NSA’s programs in a world that is now characterized by a resurgent radical Islamist threat and is routinely imperiled by self-radicalized, ISIS-inspired lone wolves.

While 61 percent of those polled in a survey released in March say they are “less confident the surveillance efforts are serving the public interest,” it’s far from clear that this majority of respondents would do away with the NSA’s programs entirely. 82 percent of those polled are comfortable with the government monitoring the communications of suspected terrorists. Another 60 percent are unperturbed by the prospect of monitoring the communications of elected U.S. officials and foreign leaders. A narrow majority, 54 percent, say that they are not uncomfortable with federal officials monitoring the communications of non-U.S. citizens.

“Yet, 57% say it is unacceptable for the government to monitor the communications of U.S. citizens,” Pew’s release read. “At the same time, majorities support monitoring of those particular individuals who use words like ‘explosives’ and ‘automatic weapons’ in their search engine queries (65% say that) and those who visit anti-American websites (67% say that).”

The issue of NSA surveillance is nowhere near as black and white as it was when the Snowden leaks were initially revealed. There are some good arguments in support of Paul’s position on NSA surveillance. Those that the senator made at the open of his latest marathon floor speech on the matter are not among them.

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Who’s Winning the Foreign Policy Primary?

Nothing that happens this far in advance of the first primary and caucus state votes cast next year can be considered decisive but at least one element of the Republican presidential race was clarified this week if not settled. While the scrum of GOP candidates has yet to sort itself out into frontrunners and obvious also-rans, on the question of foreign policy we did get some answers about who was and was not ready for prime time. Jeb Bush’s perplexing series of stumbles in response to obvious foreign policy queries did nothing to advance his cause. At the same time, Senator Marco Rubio gave an outstanding speech at the Council of Foreign Relations that made it seem as if he was the experienced candidate ready to govern and his onetime mentor Bush was the novice. Meanwhile Senator Rand Paul also used Bush’s stumble to highlight his divergence from traditional Republican views about defense and foreign policy. At least for the moment, it seems as if the real foreign policy primary will be between the competing visions of Rubio and Paul while the rest of the field, doesn’t seem to be quite up to speed on the most important aspect of any president’s job.

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Nothing that happens this far in advance of the first primary and caucus state votes cast next year can be considered decisive but at least one element of the Republican presidential race was clarified this week if not settled. While the scrum of GOP candidates has yet to sort itself out into frontrunners and obvious also-rans, on the question of foreign policy we did get some answers about who was and was not ready for prime time. Jeb Bush’s perplexing series of stumbles in response to obvious foreign policy queries did nothing to advance his cause. At the same time, Senator Marco Rubio gave an outstanding speech at the Council of Foreign Relations that made it seem as if he was the experienced candidate ready to govern and his onetime mentor Bush was the novice. Meanwhile Senator Rand Paul also used Bush’s stumble to highlight his divergence from traditional Republican views about defense and foreign policy. At least for the moment, it seems as if the real foreign policy primary will be between the competing visions of Rubio and Paul while the rest of the field, doesn’t seem to be quite up to speed on the most important aspect of any president’s job.

As I wrote earlier this week, the grilling of Bush about Iraq and the legacy of his brother George W. wasn’t the discussion Republicans needed to have. But as Bush fumbled various responses, he seemed unprepared for questions to which he should have had a ready response. The point wasn’t that his various answers were wrong. Rather, it was the impression that didn’t seem to have command of foreign policy issues at his fingertips and his political skills had grown rusty in the 13 years since he last ran for office.

By contrast, Rubio’s foreign policy address was both eloquent and to the point as he gave voice to a coherent worldview about the need for American strength and vision. In a GOP field that is long on domestic issue strength but short on foreign policy expertise, Rubio’s command of the issue proved he was not merely competent but head and shoulders above the competition. That seemed especially true during a week when in addition to Bush’s troubles, one of their leading competitors, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, was in Israel for his first trip to the country. He was, he said, there to listen, but his main goal seemed to be to avoid the press overhearing any gaffes like the ones he made during his trip to London earlier this year. Walker was shielded from press scrutiny and questions the entire time he was in Israel. Even the press-shy Hillary Clinton provided more transparency this week than Walker.

As for Rubio, he was both optimistic about the power of American exceptionalism and aware of the serious nature of the threats facing the country. Rubio provided an in-depth of the failures of the Obama administration on issues like Iran, Israel, Russia and China. But this was more than just the usual litany of complaints about the last six years. His three pillared approach to the challenges of the future — military strength, protecting the economy against nations like Russia and China that seek to threaten the free flow of international trade and standing up for the nation’s core values — illustrated his nuanced understanding of the challenges facing the nation. The Rubio doctrine was not just about flexing America’s muscles and stopping the apologies and appeasement that have characterized the Obama years but is based on a positive vision of why American strength is essential the preservation of peace and prosperity.

But it must be admitted that Rubio wasn’t the only Republican candidate scoring points on foreign policy this week. Senator Rand Paul has been on the defense on foreign affairs for much of the past year. With ISIS on the rise and the Islamist terror threat growing in danger Paul has been eager to shed his well-earned reputation as an isolationist. But Bush’s inability to escape the Iraq War trap gave Paul an easy target. The Kentucky senator hasn’t much to offer the country when it comes to an alternative to Obama’s policies in the Middle East since he is, if anything to the left of the president on these issues. But when the conversation turns to the unpopular Iraq War, Paul is in his comfort zone.

He even used that as an opening to attack Rubio for supporting foreign aid. Though depriving allies, such as Israel, of essential help, has long been a staple of Paul’s neo-isolationism that nowadays masquerades as “realism,” it’s the sort of point that remains a popular applause getter on the stump. But it took a lot of brass for Paul to tag Rubio as being on “the wrong side of history” because of his belief that a judicious distribution of aid to friends was an essential part of preserving American strength.

Though his position doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, Paul’s willingness to stand up against a forward American stance abroad and aid does at least provide a competing foreign policy vision for Republican voters. It’s doubtful they would prefer Paul’s channeling of his inner Bernie Sanders to Rubio’s more Reaganesque approach. But when compared to Bush’s agonized dance around his brother’s record or Walker’s blank slate (not to mention Ben Carson’s sheer ignorance of foreign policy), it does set up a serious competition between the two senators.

Bush may be raising the most money but in the foreign policy primary, he’s trailing Rubio badly. There’s plenty of time for him and the others to catch up. But right now on Rubio and Paul are the ones who are most engaged in a vital debate about the future of America and the soul of the Republican Party.

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Don’t Call It a Comeback (Because It Isn’t)

The most commonly recalled lesson of the 2008 presidential campaign is the danger in declaring a candidate “inevitable.” But that overshadows the other lesson from that same year, and it has to do not with Hillary Clinton but with John McCain: it can be just as risky to declare a candidacy all but dead in the water. So while Clinton is aiming to avoid a repeat of that year, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, mostly written off by political observers (including this one), might just be hoping history at least rhymes this time around on the Republican side.

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The most commonly recalled lesson of the 2008 presidential campaign is the danger in declaring a candidate “inevitable.” But that overshadows the other lesson from that same year, and it has to do not with Hillary Clinton but with John McCain: it can be just as risky to declare a candidacy all but dead in the water. So while Clinton is aiming to avoid a repeat of that year, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, mostly written off by political observers (including this one), might just be hoping history at least rhymes this time around on the Republican side.

Hillary was not inevitable, as it turned out, which is why she’s back running again this year. But she seems inevitable again, and this time more so. Are pundits who may be repeating their mistake with Hillary repeating the same mistake by dismissing Chris Christie’s chances to win the GOP nomination?

In a word, no.

The New Jersey governor has launched what is being termed a “comeback” tour, and the plan appears to have both a geographic center and a policy one. As the Washington Post reports:

Chris Christie kicked off a two day swing to New Hampshire with a sober prescription for tackling escalating entitlement spending.

The New Jersey governor and potential Republican presidential candidate proposed raising the retirement age for Social security to 69, means testing for Social Security, and gradually raising the eligibility age for Medicare.

Christie outlined his proposals on entitlement reform at a speech Tuesday morning at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.

“In the short term, it is growing the deficit and slowly but surely taking over all of government. In the long term, it will steal our children’s future and bankrupt our nation. Meanwhile, our leaders in Washington are not telling people the truth. Washington is still not dealing with the problem,” Christie said.

“Washington is afraid to have an honest conversation about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid with the people of our country. I am not,” the governor added.

As Hail Marys go, there is logic to this plan. Geographically, it makes sense. The crowded field of social conservatives and candidates with Midwest ties/appeal makes Iowa a stretch for Christie. New Hampshire, on the other hand, is much closer to home for a northeastern Republican, and ideologically probably a better fit than Iowa for someone like Christie.

Additionally, the idea that candidates might waste resources trying to win Iowa at the expense of New Hampshire isn’t crazy at all. In fact, since 1980, for every presidential-election year in which there was no Republican presidential incumbent, Iowa and New Hampshire chose different winners. This streak almost ended in 2012 when it appeared Mitt Romney won Iowa and then went on to win New Hampshire, but once all the votes were counted it turned out Rick Santorum had actually won Iowa. The smart money, then, in New Hampshire is never on the winner of the Iowa caucuses (at least not when it’s an open seat). Christie probably knows this.

However, with such a crowded field, even assuming the Iowa winner doesn’t also win New Hampshire (and he will still likely compete there for votes anyway) Christie will have a steep hill to climb. Jeb Bush is his most significant rival for establishment votes, and Bush will have lots of money to blanket the northeast in ads while Christie’s campaign is just getting out of the gate. Rand Paul will likely be competitive in New Hampshire, with its libertarian streak (his father did reasonably well in New Hampshire). And then there will still be Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and others.

On the policy side, I don’t think I even need to point out the risk involved in making entitlement reform the centerpiece of your agenda. It is bold, and Christie does need to stand out from the pack. He needs conservative votes, not just establishment support, and conservatives might be more amenable to such cuts (in theory at least, and it’ll vary depending on which piece of the safety net we’re talking about).

Christie is very good in person, so the town hall format should help him. He’s also got the “straight-talker” bona fides to at least portray himself as the guy who’s telling you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear. But that can go south in a hurry, considering Christie’s temper.

And further, as Harry Enten points out today, “The Politics Of Christie’s ‘Bold’ Social Security Plan Are Atrocious.” Enten writes:

According to a January 2013 Reason-Rupe survey, Republicans are more likely than Democrats, independents and the general public to say that income should not be a determining factor in receiving Social Security benefits. Only 26 percent of Republicans believe that Social Security should go to only those below a certain income level. Seventy percent of Republicans are opposed to such a proposal. …

In a September 2013 Associated Press-National Opinion Research Center poll, 58 percent of Republicans over the age of 50 were opposed to raising the age of eligibility on Social Security. Just 33 percent of Republicans over the age of 50 support such a proposal. According to an April 2013 Fox News survey, Republicans overall are more split. Still, does Christie really want to try to push the idea of raising the retirement age in New Hampshire, where 56 percent of primary voters are over the age of 50? For a moderate Republican like Christie, New Hampshire is a crucial state. His plan doesn’t seem like smart politics.

No, it doesn’t. But Christie can’t really afford to play it safe. Or can he? Is he learning the wrong lesson himself from 2008? McCain’s comeback was not due to bold conservative reform plans. If anything, he was the “safe” candidate in the field: the war hero with clean hands and decades of service. As other, more hyped candidates flamed out early, McCain simply remained standing.

He also benefited from the electoral math, specifically in having others in the race like Mike Huckabee who could siphon votes from Romney without posing a serious threat to McCain.

Then again, considering the strength of the field this year, Christie can’t plausibly expect every other serious candidate to implode. So he’s going for broke. It’s an interesting idea that may be making headlines today but will ultimately be a footnote in the story of 2016.

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Rubio, Immigration, and the Long Road to the Nomination

Yesterday, on the day of the announcement of his presidential candidacy, Marco Rubio had two very good reasons to talk about immigration. And that’s the problem. Rubio took a risk in trying to reform the federal immigration system. It was, in many ways, an admirable risk, since the system really does need an overhaul, and Rubio seems to have learned an important lesson about prioritizing border security and preventing another border surge over increasing low-skilled immigration. But it was an expensive lesson.

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Yesterday, on the day of the announcement of his presidential candidacy, Marco Rubio had two very good reasons to talk about immigration. And that’s the problem. Rubio took a risk in trying to reform the federal immigration system. It was, in many ways, an admirable risk, since the system really does need an overhaul, and Rubio seems to have learned an important lesson about prioritizing border security and preventing another border surge over increasing low-skilled immigration. But it was an expensive lesson.

The first reason Rubio had to talk about immigration was that he was asked. He gave an interview to NPR’s Steve Inskeep, and at one point in the wide-ranging discussion the subject turned to immigration. Rubio mentioned that he understands now that immigration reform can’t be “comprehensive,” as he had hoped, especially because distrust of massive government legislation is so high. He also talked about how difficult it would be to get such legislation passed during Obama’s presidency. (Obama has famously torpedoed immigration reform time and time again.)

And then Inskeep asked about the presidential election and the Hispanic vote, and the two had this exchange:

How do you keep from getting hammered on that in a general election where the Hispanic vote may be very important?

Well, I don’t know about the others, but I’ve done more immigration than Hillary Clinton ever did. I mean, I helped pass an immigration bill in a Senate dominated by Democrats. And that’s more than she’s ever done. She’s given speeches on it, but she’s never done anything on it. So I have a record of trying to do something on it. It didn’t work because at the end of the day, we did not sufficiently address the issue of, of illegal immigration and I warned about that throughout that process, as well, that I didn’t think we were doing enough to give that bill a chance of moving forward in the House.

It’s understandable that Rubio chose this answer. The phrasing of the question hemmed him in a bit, tying immigration reform to the Hispanic vote. But the truth is, supporting immigration reform will not do much for Republicans’ attempts to win over Hispanic voters, and “taking the issue off the table” by actually successfully passing and instituting reform won’t do much more.

As far as attempting to pass reform, this is because Hispanic voters have much more in common with Democrats than Republicans on policy than simply immigration. And Republicans knew this even before the 2012 election. On the day of that election, for example, I pointed out a poll showing President Obama getting 73 percent of the Hispanic vote and Hispanic voters trusting Obama and the Democrats on the economy over Mitt Romney and the Republicans by a 73-18 percent margin.

Other polls have shown similar results with even more specifics, but the numbers in that poll were so clear as to be a neon sign: Hispanic voters were, like their fellow voters, concerned about the economy. That poll also indicated that promising to address immigration reform wasn’t very valuable to Hispanic voters, because they didn’t believe congressional cooperation would have improved much no matter who won.

And “taking it off the table” doesn’t get you very far either, because it won’t be done by 2016 anyway (in part because Democrats don’t want to take this issue off the table). It might help somewhat, but it’s not the main issue and treating it as if it were can be a distraction. This is also why mainstream reporters will always want to tie immigration reform to the Hispanic vote: the odds are against it, and therefore they can keep badgering Republicans on it.

The other good reason Rubio had for talking about immigration is that Republican candidates are already pivoting to the general election by contrasting themselves with Hillary Clinton. Jeb Bush does this because he wants to prove himself to the establishment and look like a frontrunner. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Rubio will do this because they are young enough to pitch the election as “yesterday” vs. “tomorrow.” (Rubio did this explicitly, and brilliantly, in his announcement speech.) Age is no advantage against each other, though, for the latter three.

Rubio also had perfect timing to turn his criticism to Hillary, since she announced her campaign the day before he did. It’s possible she thought she was upstaging him, but he turned it to his advantage flawlessly. Going forward, the GOP candidates will surely criticize each other, but Rubio was right to turn toward the general this week, and doing so opens the door to talk about immigration.

But Rubio doesn’t have to run from this issue to avoid antagonizing the base. He just has to understand that pivoting to the general election before the actual general election is different than after winning the nomination, because he’s making his pitch to Republican primary voters.

The “I can beat Hillary” rationale does not have a great track record, if 2007-08 is any guide. But whatever credit Rubio will get for attempting immigration reform, he’s already received. For now he needs to remember who his audience is, because if he’s lucky they’ll be his primary audience for the next year.

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Can Rand Paul Change the Way National Politicians Talk About Abortion?

Yesterday Rand Paul earned plaudits from conservatives for turning a question on abortion back on Democrats and putting them on the defensive. It’s long been the case that Democratic Party leaders hold fringe opinions on abortion, yet are rarely if ever asked about it by a compliant media. Not only did Paul not slip up on the question (the way candidates have in the past). He even forced an admission by DNC chief Debbie Wasserman Schultz that leading Democrats believe there should be no limits on abortion. But even more important are two other, significant ways Paul’s accomplishment could change the 2016 race.

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Yesterday Rand Paul earned plaudits from conservatives for turning a question on abortion back on Democrats and putting them on the defensive. It’s long been the case that Democratic Party leaders hold fringe opinions on abortion, yet are rarely if ever asked about it by a compliant media. Not only did Paul not slip up on the question (the way candidates have in the past). He even forced an admission by DNC chief Debbie Wasserman Schultz that leading Democrats believe there should be no limits on abortion. But even more important are two other, significant ways Paul’s accomplishment could change the 2016 race.

To recap, here’s the exchange yesterday, from Bloomberg’s Dave Weigel:

“Should there be any exemptions or not?” asked NH1 reporter Paul Steinhauser, citing the DNC attack.

“What’s the DNC say?” asked Paul. That landed like a joke—the room holding the press conference also contained some Paul supporters waiting for photos—but he was serious.

“Here’s the deal—we always seen to have the debate waaaaay over here on what are the exact details of exemptions, or when it starts,” said Paul, waving his hands to the left. “Why don’t we ask the DNC: Is it okay to kill a seven-pound baby in the uterus? You go back and you ask Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she’s OK with killing a seven-pound baby that is not born yet. Ask her when life begins, and you ask Debbie when it’s okay to protect life. When you get an answer from Debbie, get back to me.”

“Here’s an answer,” said Schultz. “I support letting women and their doctors make this decision without government getting involved. Period. End of story. Now your turn, Senator Paul. We know you want to allow government officials like yourself to make this decision for women — but do you stand by your opposition to any exceptions, even when it comes to rape, incest, or life of the mother? Or do we just have different definitions of ‘personal liberty’? And I’d appreciate it if you could respond without ’shushing’ me.”

Schultz’s response highlights the two key aspects of this as it relates to the presidential election.

The first is that Paul put Schultz on the defensive because Republicans with national aspirations on the campaign trail almost never talk about abortion like this. The honesty was bracing, but Schultz was also unprepared for it. Yet this isn’t, first and foremost, an issue for the Democrats, because we’re so far from the general election. Instead, it’s a challenge to Paul’s fellow Republicans.

The Todd Akin affair has spooked Republicans even more than they’d normally be about defending the right to life. But if Paul is going to talk like this–as well he should–and get conservative applause for it–again, as well he should–then it’s going to put pressure on his fellow candidates too. Paul does not want to avoid the debate over abortion. On the contrary, he wants to have a full and honest debate about it. Over the long term, that’s won’t be good for Democrats like Schultz, whose position on abortion is horrifying–unless, of course, the Republicans trip over their words and faceplant on the question at some point, the way Akin and others have.

But for the near future, other Republican candidates are not going to be able to ignore the question either, not from Paul and not from the media who know they can get the candidates talking about it now. It will come up in debates, and it will come up on the campaign trail. And Paul has raised the stakes by offering an honest and full-throated defense of the unborn. Will others follow suit? How will Ted Cruz, who is openly aiming for the evangelical vote, handle the question?

The other reason it has implications for the race is that this is part and parcel of Paul’s response to the “war on women” lie. Remember, Paul last caused a stir on this when he expressed his confusion at being accused of waging a war on women by the same people who still want the Clintons to lead their party. He even called Bill Clinton–accurately–a sexual predator.

The abortion debate is central to the Democrats’ war on women narrative. And they’re already trying to paint Paul as hostile to women. As the Blaze points out:

Democrats on Wednesday indicated that their emerging strategy for fighting Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) as he seeks the GOP presidential nomination is to say he has a problem with women.

Paul on Wednesday got into a tense back and forth with a female anchor from NBC in which he accused her of editorializing about his views instead of simply asking about his views. “Why don’t we let me explain instead of you talking over me, okay?” he said.

Paul’s habit of getting defensive in interviews may hurt him on the campaign trail, since he’s going up against happy warriors like Scott Walker and the seemingly unflappable Ted Cruz. It’s a long campaign, and Paul’s going to have to have the patience for it.

But he’s not anti-woman. And in fact, it’s a bit condescending of Democrats toward women to treat them as too fragile for the heat of the political debate. But that won’t stop Democrats from trying.

Paul’s answer on abortion is of a piece with his strategy to combat the war on women nonsense. He pushes back every time, and has become adept at turning the accusations back on Democrats. Considering how important the war on women lie is to Democrats’ campaign strategy, it will be interesting to see how Paul’s approach will play on a national level over time, and whether it will encourage other Republicans to turn the questions back on Democrats as well.

The best-case scenario for how this turns out for Paul is that he finally ends the bogus war on women while forcing voters to contemplate the appalling implications of Democrats’ extreme stance on abortion. The worst-case scenario is that his quick temper gets him into trouble and he burns out. A middle ground is that he backs off his current strategy in order to prevent the second scenario, but this would mean also retreating somewhat rhetorically.

The result may well determine how both parties talk about abortion going forward. Some will cheer Paul and some won’t, but all will likely be paying close attention.

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MSNBC’s Favorite Republican Can’t Win

Yesterday was Rand Paul’s big day as the Kentucky senator announcement his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Like any baseball team on opening day, in theory his chances are as good as any other candidate, and given the expected crowded field competing for the nod, that’s still true. But though his Louisville announcement bash went smoothly, what followed hasn’t gone quite as well. Some of that is due to Paul’s personality turning media appearances sour. But just as important is the way the basic contradiction in his campaign strategy is undermining his chances almost from the start. Though Paul has money, an ardent cadre of supporters, and a rationale for his quest, it’s hard to imagine a path to victory for him. While his rival Ted Cruz’s launch seems to have validated the notion that he is being underestimated by pundits, Paul’s start may be proof that those who see him as a lock to be a first-tier primary candidate next winter and spring are the ones who are making a mistake.

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Yesterday was Rand Paul’s big day as the Kentucky senator announcement his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Like any baseball team on opening day, in theory his chances are as good as any other candidate, and given the expected crowded field competing for the nod, that’s still true. But though his Louisville announcement bash went smoothly, what followed hasn’t gone quite as well. Some of that is due to Paul’s personality turning media appearances sour. But just as important is the way the basic contradiction in his campaign strategy is undermining his chances almost from the start. Though Paul has money, an ardent cadre of supporters, and a rationale for his quest, it’s hard to imagine a path to victory for him. While his rival Ted Cruz’s launch seems to have validated the notion that he is being underestimated by pundits, Paul’s start may be proof that those who see him as a lock to be a first-tier primary candidate next winter and spring are the ones who are making a mistake.

What’s fascinating about these two launches is the way both candidates have gone against the stereotype about their personalities and styles. Cruz is viewed as a bomb-throwing, extremist agitator, yet he came off in the usual round of interviews on the news and broadcast channels as being thoughtful and soft-spoken even as he remained unyielding about his conservative views. By contrast Paul, whose reputation is of being a low-key intellectual, showed a brittle nature as he responded to questions about flip-flopping with anger and condescension toward media figures. Granted, nobody on the right will blame Paul for tearing into Today’s Savannah Guthrie, but it struck a contrast to the supposedly off-balance Cruz’s patience when subjected to similar sorts of questions.

Though GOP voters tend to sympathize with their leaders when they are under attack from the media, voters tend not to like presidential candidates who can’t keep their cool. For Paul to unravel so quickly with the glow of his announcement still on him doesn’t bode well for how he will hold up in the long haul through primary season.

But the problem with the flip-flopping charge goes deeper than Paul’s thin skin.

The reason he’s upset about being questioned about the way he has gradually drifted a bit to the center on foreign policy and security issues is that he knows that his formerly rigid libertarian views are out of step with his party and the general public. Paul’s instinctive antagonism toward security measures and a robust U.S. defense seemed to reflect the post-Iraq/Afghanistan wars mood of the country in early 2013 when he gained attention with a well executed Senate filibuster about the use of drone attacks. But with ISIS on the march and the key issue of the day being President Obama’s appeasement of Iran, his attempt to square the circle on these points falls flat.

The contradictions were evident even in his announcement speech, as at one point he pledged to “do whatever it takes” to defeat terrorism but then returned to more familiar rhetoric a few moments later as he lambasted some of the security measures that give law enforcement the ability to stop the terrorists.

Just as important, the looming problem for Paul is that his basic foreign-policy approach still has its roots in the extremism of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul. It is true that, as the candidate says, he shouldn’t be held accountable for his father’s views (a good thing since it is hard to imagine the elder Paul staying silent during the campaign) and that he disagrees with him on some issues. But try as he might to demonstrate distance from the White House on all issues, it’s still obvious that he is running for a Republican nomination while espousing views that are actually largely to the left of those of President Obama on foreign policy.

That was always true of Ron Paul, but a vignette on MSNBC yesterday demonstrated just how comfortable the denizens of that left-wing cul de sac are with the Kentucky senator’s approach to foreign policy. Paul’s announcement and the attacks that are being launched against him by conservative opponents of his foreign-policy views prompted the channel’s Chris Matthews to launch into an impressive rant about how the candidate is more reflective of the views of most of the country than his GOP opponents. But instead of leaving it at that, Matthews insisted that the attempt by “neocons and piggish money” that want to fight more wars for Israel to oppose Paul speaks well for the candidate. Matthews stopped just short of overt anti-Semitism, though his line about “cloth coat Republicans” (a nod to Richard Nixon’s “checkers speech”?) that send their kids to war while the neocons don’t seemed an obvious and inaccurate shot at supporters of Israel.

Rand Paul isn’t responsible for what crackpots on the ultra-left MSNBC say about him, but what is significant is that a candidate that can draw sympathy from that sector is poorly placed to win mainstream support among Republicans. Considering that some of his father’s hard-core backers are becoming disillusioned with Rand’s apostasies about foreign aid and defense spending, there just aren’t enough libertarians to help Paul win. Tea Partiers have other choices with Cruz and Scott Walker. Nor is he well placed to compete for conservative Christian voters.

That adds up to a steep hill for him to climb. Though no one with this much name recognition and the ability to raise money can be written off on day one of his candidacy, the limitations to his appeal are actually greater than those of the supposedly more extreme Cruz. MSNBC’s favorite Republican may not be as much of a lock to be a first-tier primary candidate as some pundits think.

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Why Rand Paul Doesn’t Need to Tell Us Why He’s Running (But Hillary Does)

Contrary to what may seem like a mad dash for the Republican presidential nomination, the distribution of candidate announcements so far has actually been quite rational. Those who had the most to gain by jumping into the race early have done so. Tomorrow brings the beginning of the next phase: the entry into the race of the group of candidates known as “everyone else.”

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Contrary to what may seem like a mad dash for the Republican presidential nomination, the distribution of candidate announcements so far has actually been quite rational. Those who had the most to gain by jumping into the race early have done so. Tomorrow brings the beginning of the next phase: the entry into the race of the group of candidates known as “everyone else.”

Tomorrow Rand Paul is expected to officially launch his presidential campaign. A week later, Marco Rubio will likely do the same. And on the other side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton may formally announce her candidacy as early as the day after Rubio’s campaign launch. The campaign will be underway in earnest, though this will start a less interesting chapter in the 2016 story.

Although Jeb Bush has not officially launched his campaign, he was the first to make an announcement that made plain the fact that his campaign was functionally underway and also opened the gates to the 2016 primary race. This made a great deal of sense: it was unclear if Jeb really was going to run, and he wanted to assuage all doubt and signal to donors and staffers he was in.

Jeb is also vying for the affections of the party establishment, and he had a chance to deliver a knockout blow to his chief establishment rival, Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor is limited in what steps he can take toward a candidacy right now and is bound by his day job. Jeb isn’t, and so he knew if he could jump in and crowd out the donor/staffer field on the establishment side of the race, he could make it impossible for Christie to have a path to the nomination, and maybe even convince him not to run at all.

The next candidate to remove all doubt, and the first to officially announce his campaign, was Ted Cruz. The Texas senator seemed more likely than Jeb to run, but that perception might have had something to do with the fact that Cruz is currently in office and Jeb isn’t, and Cruz’s actions in the Senate always seemed to be aiming at something larger than the individual votes around which they were taken.

But Cruz is also a young, freshman senator in a (prospective) field with other young, freshman senators. It made sense that one of the freshmen toying with the idea of running for president would sit this one out and wait for a future election, especially if they felt generally confident in their reelection prospects. Cruz fit the bill of the member of the club who might have been most likely to wait. Jumping into the race officially, then, was the smart play: like Jeb, there was a genuine will-he-or-won’t-he aspect to his compelling freshman term, even if he did always seem to lean toward running.

Cruz also might have an in-state rival for conservative affection in Rick Perry. Cruz will benefit greatly from a head start on Perry, a three-term governor with national connections and some (rather bumpy) presidential campaign experience.

In other words, those who needed a head start entered the race early enough to get one. The natural reaction of the others, then, would be to enter the race as well and limit that head start. And so that’s what they’re doing.

Tomorrow Rand Paul is expected to announce his candidacy, and he’s released a campaign trailer to preview it. We’re told he’s a “new kind of Republican,” and the message on screen at the close of the video says: “On April 7 one leader will stand up to defeat the Washington machine and unleash the American dream.” It’s a message clearly directed at Cruz, Rubio, and any other members of Congress considering running (Lindsey Graham, Peter King). This, too, makes sense: Paul actually benefits from Jeb winning establishment backing and older candidates reinforce his past-vs.-future message. Cruz, however, is a real impediment to his chances of winning the nomination, though it’s unclear how he’ll present himself as more of an outsider than Cruz.

But the key is that he doesn’t have to–at least not yet. The announcement doesn’t have to break any new ground or present anything more than a general message. Politicians with relatively strong name identification build their own reputations over time. Paul doesn’t need to say anything more than “I’m running.”

And it puts into stark relief the difference between such politicians and those who actually need to say who they are and what they stand for on every re-introduction. Hillary Clinton’s nascent campaign is a perfect example. She has nothing interesting to say about anything. The news stories on her campaign take on a distinctly dopey quality because of this.

Commentators had some fun with an Associated Press dispatch on Clinton in late February. As the Free Beacon notes, the AP’s initial headline was “Clinton says she would push problem-solving if she runs.” It was later changed to “Clinton says she would push for inclusive problem-solving.”

Clinton is running for president because she believes it’s owed to her. Her new campaign focus is no better. Here’s the AP from this morning: “Clinton to start 2016 bid with focus on voter interaction.” Hillary Clinton is now willing to do anything to become president, even if it means talking to the unwashed masses.

This problem keeps cropping up because Clinton stands for nothing and believes nothing, and is at constant pains to justify her candidacy. Rand Paul doesn’t have to justify anything, which is why his announcement tomorrow won’t actually be very dramatic. And that’s a good thing.

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Rand Paul, Paleoneoconrealitarian Uniter

When speculation about the 2016 presidential election first began, the question about Rand Paul was whether his candidacy would closely mimic his father’s or whether he’d carve out his own independent identity. Now we know the answer: Neither. He’s running as Marco Rubio. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but it points to Paul’s recent moves that put him closer to the Republican mainstream and farther from his own distinctive base of support. And it’s beginning to look like if he had to choose between the two, Paul might choose not to dance with the one that brung ’im.

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When speculation about the 2016 presidential election first began, the question about Rand Paul was whether his candidacy would closely mimic his father’s or whether he’d carve out his own independent identity. Now we know the answer: Neither. He’s running as Marco Rubio. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but it points to Paul’s recent moves that put him closer to the Republican mainstream and farther from his own distinctive base of support. And it’s beginning to look like if he had to choose between the two, Paul might choose not to dance with the one that brung ’im.

To be sure, Paul is far from a carbon copy of defense hawks. But he’s spending considerable energy blurring those distinctions. And a turning point does seem to have been reached, ironically, thanks to the recent open letter to Iranian leaders signed by Republican senators who are opposed to a nuclear Iran and the president’s attempts to go around Congress. Paul, surprisingly, also signed the letter. And he’s continuing down that path with his proposed amendment that would, as Time revealed this morning, boost defense spending:

In an olive branch to defense hawks hell-bent on curtailing his White House ambitions, the libertarian Senator introduced a budget amendment late Wednesday calling for a nearly $190 billion infusion to the defense budget over the next two years—a roughly 16 percent increase.

Paul’s amendment brings him in line with his likely presidential primary rivals, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who introduced a measure calling for nearly the same level of increases just days ago. The amendment was first noticed by TIME and later confirmed by Paul’s office.

The move completes a stunning reversal for Paul, who in May 2011, after just five months in office, released his own budget that would have eliminated four agencies—Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Education—while slashing the Pentagon, a sacred cow for many Republicans. Under Paul’s original proposal, defense spending would have dropped from $553 billion in the 2011 fiscal year to $542 billion in 2016. War funding would have plummeted from $159 billion to zero. He called it the “draw-down and restructuring of the Department of Defense.”

But under Paul’s new plan, the Pentagon will see its budget authority swell by $76.5 billion to $696,776,000,000 in fiscal year 2016.

I have been sympathetic, as I’ve written in the past, to Paul’s objections to what he and his supporters see as the exaggeration of the extent of his apparent political conversions. But his claim to consistency is going to start looking absurd on its face, and his defense-spending amendment is one reason why.

The Time piece helpfully goes back about four years to show just how far Paul has come on this issue. But even as his term in the Senate went on, Paul continued to be an advocate for cutting defense spending not only on fiscal grounds but on national-security grounds as well. Paul had crafted a very clear rationale for reducing the defense budget, and even sought to draw a contrast with Mitt Romney’s own views on the subject less than a month before the 2012 presidential election. In an op-ed for CNN, Paul wrote:

Romney chose to criticize President Obama for seeking to cut a bloated Defense Department and for not being bellicose enough in the Middle East, two assertions with which I cannot agree.

Defense and war spending has grown 137% since 2001. That kind of growth is not sustainable.

Adm. Michael Mullen stated earlier this year that the biggest threat to our national security is our debt.

If debt is our gravest threat, adding to the debt by expanding military spending further threatens our national security.

Paul’s decision to sign the open letter to Iran, an effort led by Senator Tom Cotton, attracted two kinds of very interesting criticism. One was the antiwar movement’s treatment of Paul as a sellout to the cause. The other was the more muted criticism from the realist and paleoconservative right, which seemed to accept Time’s own formulation that Paul is extending an “olive branch”–or, at this point, a series of olive branches–to those with whom he disagrees. That is, their criticism of him is tempered by their belief he’s not being wholly honest.

That resulted in a moment of near-unity as conservatives pushed back on the hysterical attempt by the left to brand the dissenting senators’ actions as treasonous. There were far fewer cases of terms like “neocon warmonger” being tossed casually at those who oppose the emerging nuke deal with Iran than there might otherwise have been.

Again, muted criticism of Paul is not the same as no criticism of Paul. But suddenly hawkish policies were being combed for nuance. It was a glimpse of what the foreign-policy debate on the right could look like when advocates of greater restraint are willing to characterize hawks as something other than a cross between Dick Cheney and Dr. Strangelove.

That moment of grace will surely pass. But there are likely to be other such moments, as long as Paul continues his flirtation with a more hawkish approach to foreign affairs. The question, then, will be whether he will have mortgaged his candidacy’s raison d’être in the process and allowed his carefully cultivated image to disintegrate. To prevent that, he’ll need to find a balance between those he hopes will believe him and those he needs to assume he’s merely pretending.

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Why the 2016 Primaries Will Be a Wild Ride for the GOP

Normally, the Republican Party picks its nominee the way the British pick their monarch. The candidate “next in line” gets to run in the general election, no questions asked. Meanwhile, the Democrats are known for rollicking, unpredictable contests that stretch the full length of the primary calendar. But 2016 will probably see a reversal of the trend. The Republican field will be the raucous one, while Hillary Clinton looks to consolidate the Democratic nomination earlier than any non-incumbent in generations.

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Normally, the Republican Party picks its nominee the way the British pick their monarch. The candidate “next in line” gets to run in the general election, no questions asked. Meanwhile, the Democrats are known for rollicking, unpredictable contests that stretch the full length of the primary calendar. But 2016 will probably see a reversal of the trend. The Republican field will be the raucous one, while Hillary Clinton looks to consolidate the Democratic nomination earlier than any non-incumbent in generations.

Why the reversal? To start, the Democrats are not dealing from a position of strength. The fact is that their midterm defeats of 2010 and 2014–not just in the Senate, but state governorships as well–have decimated the party’s bench. There are precious few credible presidential candidates who could run, besides Hillary Clinton. If Joe Biden were not so gaffe-prone, he might be able to challenge her, and he might still. But beyond that their bench is weak. So, it is not so much that Clinton’s stature is much improved compared to 2008, when she faced a broad, formidable field for the nomination; it is, rather, that the quality of her would-be competitors has dropped markedly.

Meanwhile, the Republican triumphs in the Senate and governorships have created a wealth of would-be candidates. Ironically, Obama has been very good for the Republican Party. There are a plethora of prospective candidates–Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Mike Pence, Marco Rubio, Rick Snyder, and Scott Walker–who became a senator or governor during the Obama era, in part by running against him. Further, an unpopular Obama helped Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal cruise to their reelections, in 2010 and 2011, respectively. And the same considerations even apply to Ben Carson. Would he be running strongly in Iowa right now if he had not publicly criticized ObamaCare in front of the president?

Still, there is more to the story. Usually, we think of the Democratic Party as a motley assortment of various, often contradictory interest groups, more or less evenly matched. This is why Jimmy Carter could come from nowhere to win in 1976, why Gary Hart could almost take the nomination from Walter Mondale in 1984, why Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton could win their contests even though a majority of Democrats voted for somebody else, and ultimately why Barack Obama basically tied Hillary Clinton in 2008. Meanwhile, the Republican Party is strikingly uniform–more or less the married, white middle class–and this homogeny has facilitated its coronation process. There are just fewer disagreements among Republicans, so they come together on a nominee in an orderly fashion.

This conception of the GOP is not quite right. As I argue in my new book A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption, the Republican Party has long been factional as well, just less so than the Democrats. In the late 19th century, for instance, it was an alliance between the middle class, Yankees of New England, industrialists and financiers, Midwestern factory workers, and Western farmers. More often than not, these groups saw eye to eye, but issues like tariffs, the gold standard, and civil-service reform could split them into factions. These divisions were nothing compared to 19th century Democrats–who somehow combined the Southern plantation gentry with the ethnic vote in the big Northern cities–but they were still there, and still mattered under the right circumstances.

Today, the same remains true. Republicans are still factional, even if they are more united than the Democrats. There is the “establishment,” which resides mostly in Democratic-controlled areas like New York City and Washington D.C., but provides the campaign contributions, experts, and consultants necessary to run campaigns; there are cultural conservatives, particularly strong in Midwest caucus states like Iowa; there are small-government reformers, who turn out to vote in New Hampshire primaries; there are pro-growth Sun Belters in states like Florida and Texas; there are pro-military Republicans, for instance in South Carolina; and there are libertarian-style Republicans, strong in Western caucus states. And so on. These groups are all closer to one another than any are to the Democrats, but there are disagreements among them. In the Obama era, there has been tension within the GOP on how quickly and aggressively the party should challenge the president, as well as what to do about immigration reform.

In fact, the Obama administration–while unifying Republicans in shared opposition to the Democratic party–has created some pretty heated disagreements within it about what to do next. We see this in Congress now, as it struggles to formulate and implement an agenda to counter Obama’s. And we probably are going to see it in the primary battle next year, as a major bone of contention will not be whether the country should depart from the Obama policies, but how dramatically it should do so.

And ironically, the strength of the prospective field is probably exacerbating the internal cleavages as well. Right now, each of those factions can point to a credible candidate who agrees predominantly with its perspective. Sometimes, there may be more than one. The establishment figures like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. The cultural conservatives adore Ben Carson and Ted Cruz. Scott Walker is the first choice among reformers. Libertarians like Rand Paul. The field is so strong that no faction within the party is forced to say, “OK–my ideal candidate isn’t running. So, who is my compromise choice?”

Will this be a bad thing for the GOP? Possibly. Sean Trende has highlighted the possibility of no clear nominee being found prior to the convention, but that is unprecedented in the modern era. It could still happen, but nobody in the party has an interest in such disunion right before the general election. The most likely outcome is that somebody will emerge to unite a critical mass of the various forces, and become a consensus choice–maybe that candidate will not win a majority of the primary vote, but he or she will have won more than anybody else and be acceptable to all the major factions. And, just like in the free market, political competition can spark innovation and generate upside surprises. The battle will not only improve the ultimate nominee’s campaign skills, but maybe point the way to a better line of attack against Clinton in the general election. If Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” works for capitalism, it can work for Republican politics, too.

So, for now, the more, the merrier!

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ISIS’s Rise Means 2016 May Be a Foreign-Policy Election

In Britain on a trade mission, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was quizzed about foreign policy at a session at London’s Chatham House. But rather than say anything that might help bolster the potential 2016 candidate’s foreign-policy credentials, Walker channeled mid-20th century Senate giant Arthur Vandendberg and acted as if partisan politics really should stop “at the water’s edge” and avoided saying anything that might be taken as a criticism of President Obama or even an opinion about various world crises. That might be considered principled, but if Walker wants to actually win his party’s nomination he’ll have to do better in the future (as well as avoiding being trapped into giving equivocal answers about his belief in evolution). That the exchange happened the same day that Congress began considering the president’s proposal for a new war powers resolution authorizing the use of force in the Middle East also means the same lesson will apply to other candidates. Though conventional wisdom tells us that economic questions will always dominate presidential elections, the rise of ISIS has ensured that anyone who is thinking about the White House needs to have a coherent vision of American foreign policy.

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In Britain on a trade mission, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was quizzed about foreign policy at a session at London’s Chatham House. But rather than say anything that might help bolster the potential 2016 candidate’s foreign-policy credentials, Walker channeled mid-20th century Senate giant Arthur Vandendberg and acted as if partisan politics really should stop “at the water’s edge” and avoided saying anything that might be taken as a criticism of President Obama or even an opinion about various world crises. That might be considered principled, but if Walker wants to actually win his party’s nomination he’ll have to do better in the future (as well as avoiding being trapped into giving equivocal answers about his belief in evolution). That the exchange happened the same day that Congress began considering the president’s proposal for a new war powers resolution authorizing the use of force in the Middle East also means the same lesson will apply to other candidates. Though conventional wisdom tells us that economic questions will always dominate presidential elections, the rise of ISIS has ensured that anyone who is thinking about the White House needs to have a coherent vision of American foreign policy.

As our Max Boot termed it, Obama’s proposal for authorizing U.S. actions against terrorists in the Middle East is “a classic muddle.” By attempting to balance the administration’s allergic reaction to a U.S. commitment that might actually defeat ISIS while providing a legal basis for its ongoing half-hearted efforts, the president has provoked criticism from both the right and the left. But rather than being a compromise that makes sense, it merely confirms for those who weren’t already convinced that the president has no real strategy for eliminating ISIS or even for significantly “degrading” it.

It’s not clear what exactly will come out of the Congress as both House and Senate leaders struggle to come up with a formula that makes more sense than the administration’s attempt to set up one with limitations that ensures the U.S. can’t prevail in the conflict. But while his critics may demand that the president demonstrate that he has a path to victory over ISIS, they have very little leverage over his choices. No matter the outcome of the votes on a force authorization, nothing can make the president prosecute this war with conviction. Indeed, the U.S. is increasingly showing signs that the president is more interested in making common cause with Iran than in actually rolling back ISIS’s vast territorial gains in Iraq and Syria. That means the connection between Obama’s equivocal approach to the nuclear talks with Iran is not only worrisome in and of itself but a sign of an overall strategy in which the U.S. will acquiesce to Iran becoming a nuclear threshold state and obtaining regional hegemony in return for cooperation against ISIS.

All this makes it even more important than it normally might be that potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates have more to say about foreign policy than platitudes. In 2008 the presidential contest—or at least the Democratic nomination that year—was essentially decided on the basis of Barack Obama’s adamant opposition to the Iraq war. Yet every new ISIS atrocity and terror attack is going to make it harder for anyone—whether on the right or the left—to run on a platform of keeping the U.S. out of the Middle East or to avoid conflicts.

For Democrats, this might make it even harder for those outliers with the temerity to challenge the Hillary Clinton juggernaut to get some traction by outflanking her on the left with another anti-war campaign. For Republicans, the more attention paid to ISIS murders of Americans, the harder it will be for Rand Paul to break out from the ideological box that his libertarian isolationist base has put him.

Nevertheless, Republican candidates need to do more than merely carp at Obama or issue ringing rhetoric about fighting terror. Unlike in 2008 and 2012, when many Americans thought they were electing a president to get them out of unpopular wars, the force authorization vote ensures that whoever wins next year will be leading a war effort that may well dominate their presidencies.

Unless something very unexpected happens in the next year, Republican candidates will be competing in primaries where they will be expected to tell us how they are prepared to beat an enemy that is, contrary to President Obama’s assurances, very much not on the run. That gives an advantage to a candidate like Senator Marco Rubio, who has been speaking with some authority on foreign policy throughout his first term in the Senate. Jeb Bush will have to also show whether his approach to foreign policy is, as some reports have indicated, a knockoff of his father’s “realist” policies that may not provide much of a contrast with Obama’s equivocations. By contrast, it puts those GOP governors that many of us have been assuming will be formidable candidates on the spot to quickly get up to speed on foreign policy. Walker is not the only one who fits in that category, but after his recent surge in the polls in Iowa, it’s obvious that if he wants to stay on top, he’s going to have to say something more than “no comment” about Iran.

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Rand Paul Can’t Have Best of Both Worlds

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.

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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.

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When Republicans Engage in Speculation from the Fever Swamps

In a March 2013 COMMENTARY essay Michael Gerson and I authored, we wrote this:

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In a March 2013 COMMENTARY essay Michael Gerson and I authored, we wrote this:

Republicans need to harness their policy views to the findings of science. This has been effectively done on the pro-life issue, with sonograms that reveal the humanity of a developing child. But the cause of scientific literacy was not aided during the recent [2012] primary season, when Michele Bachmann warned that “innocent little 12-year-old girls” were being “forced to have a government injection” to prevent the spread of the human papilloma virus, adding that some vaccines may cause “mental retardation.” Bachmann managed to combine ignorance about public health, indifference to cervical cancer, anti-government paranoia, and discredited conspiracy theories about vaccines into one censorious package.

It looks like Chris Christie and, especially, Rand Paul are picking up where Ms. Bachmann left off. In an interview, Doctor Paul said, “I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” The ophthalmologist, after stinging criticisms of his statements, made an effort to backtrack from them. “I did not say vaccines caused disorders,” Paul insisted, “just that they were temporally related. I did not allege causation.” Of course you didn’t. Just sayin’.

It might be easier to give the Kentucky Republican and libertarian more of the benefit of the doubt if he had not previously argued that mandatory vaccines were a first step toward “martial law.” One day it’s vaccines for measles; the next day it’s Tiananmen Square.

The claim that there’s a link between “profound mental disorders”–Senator Paul clearly has in mind autism–and vaccinations has long ago been shattered. (The link was asserted in a 1998 article in The Lancet by the British doctor Andrew Wakefield; it has since been completely discredited. This excellent Wall Street Journal editorial is worth reading in this context.)

This kind of fever swamp speculation will hurt Senator Paul’s reputation, which is fine by me. It’s no secret I’m not a particular fan of his. But let me tell you what does concern me about this kind of talk from Paul, as well as from Governor Christie, who earlier this week echoed sentiments he expressed in a 2009 letter he sent to potential voters in which he said he had “met with families affected by autism,” many of whom had “expressed their concern over New Jersey’s highest-in-the-nation vaccine mandates. I stand with them now, and will stand with them as their governor in their fight for greater parental involvement in vaccination decisions that affect their children.” This has the effect of making the GOP look like the party of the benighted.

When probable Republican presidential candidates give voice to conspiracy theories–when they speak in ways that strike most people as bizarre and disturbing–it damages their party. In saying this, I understand that vaccinations won’t be a key issue in 2016. And a week from now, unless other Republicans make the same mistake (and to their credit it looks like most will not), the issue will die down.

But these kind of stumbles do considerably more harm, I think, than many people realize. They can break through in a way that, say, a substantive policy speech (or a dozen) does not; and in doing so they can feed a negative, even toxic, impression about a party and a political movement. Voters who don’t follow politics all that closely, when they hear stuff like this, come away thinking, “This must be the home of cranks and kooks.” Thanks to Rand Paul in particular, that charge is harder to refute than it was.

So let me conclude with a modest suggestion: Prominent Republicans–especially those who are interested in winning the GOP’s presidential nomination–should, for reasons having to do with epistemology and politics, conduct themselves in a manner that demonstrates that Republicans are at peace with, not at war with, science and medicine.

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Rand Can’t Inoculate Himself Against Vaccine Flap

In his four years since winning a Kentucky Senate seat, Rand Paul has labored long and hard to establish an identity that would cause voters to see him as both smarter and less extreme than his father Ron. Up until this last week, he had largely succeeded as he expanded upon the libertarian base Ron Paul had built and, though the increased concern about ISIS and terrorism has undermined his appeal, added new fans that liked his stands against administration policy. But all that hard work may come to nothing because of his statement about vaccination. Paul may have thought he was just venting some standard libertarian suspicion about government involvement in heath care on Monday when he said vaccination should be a matter of individual choice for parents and that he had heard from parents who believe the shots were responsible for “profound mental disorders” in their children. But the comments may do more harm to his 2016 presidential hopes than the ocean of ink that has been spilled by those seeking to point out the flaws in his views on foreign policy.

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In his four years since winning a Kentucky Senate seat, Rand Paul has labored long and hard to establish an identity that would cause voters to see him as both smarter and less extreme than his father Ron. Up until this last week, he had largely succeeded as he expanded upon the libertarian base Ron Paul had built and, though the increased concern about ISIS and terrorism has undermined his appeal, added new fans that liked his stands against administration policy. But all that hard work may come to nothing because of his statement about vaccination. Paul may have thought he was just venting some standard libertarian suspicion about government involvement in heath care on Monday when he said vaccination should be a matter of individual choice for parents and that he had heard from parents who believe the shots were responsible for “profound mental disorders” in their children. But the comments may do more harm to his 2016 presidential hopes than the ocean of ink that has been spilled by those seeking to point out the flaws in his views on foreign policy.

Paul appears to be furious about the way his remarks have been interpreted and has repeated that he personally supports vaccination. He even offered to have a New York Times reporter accompany him to get a Hepatitis A booster shot. But, unlike the problem that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie created for himself earlier this week when he, too, made some remarks about “choice” with respect to vaccination, this can’t be easily spun away. As our John Podhoretz wrote today in the New York Post, that mistake could have been the result of a mistaken political instinct to avoid giving offense to those who are opposed to vaccines. I also believe it is the natural result of his predilection for shooting from the hip, a characteristic that has both built his reputation as a straight shooter but also inevitably leads to gaffes.

But Paul’s problem is not an example of a politician foolishly expanding on remarks when he should just stick to bland statements of fact. His beliefs about vaccination and government, not to mention his willingness to air unsubstantiated scare stories about the side effects of vaccines, illustrates a basic flaw in the Kentucky senator’s political makeup. Great leaders like Ronald Reagan were able to tap into voter mistrust of intrusive big government in order to articulate a vision of a country where individual initiative could prevail. But Paul’s beliefs are rooted in a dark, conspiracy-filled world in which government is not just a problem but also the enemy.

Republican primary voters got a taste of this anti-vaccination lunacy in the 2012 cycle when Michele Bachmann touted her opposition to the HPV vaccine as part of an effort to undermine the tottering campaign of Texas Governor Rick Perry who had supported the effort to get teenagers inoculated. Bachmann’s citation of anecdotal evidence that this vaccine had terrible side effects discredited her candidacy. Now Paul, with the unwitting assistance of Christie, has stepped onto the same land mine.

Though Paul is treating the focus on his views as a liberal media conspiracy, the concern about vaccines wasn’t hatched in the fertile imagination of a biased press corps. The outbreak of measles that originated in Disneyland has brought to the forefront an issue that has been percolating on the margins for years. A growing anti-vaccine movement promoted by celebrities has peddled bogus science about the shots causing autism or other disorders. This has led to a decline in vaccinations that has given new life to preventable diseases that most Americans had stopped worrying about.

It’s all well and good for people like Paul to try to apply libertarian principles that, in other contexts, all Americans should embrace, to a wide variety of topics. But when it comes to public health, an individual’s right to avoid vaccines impinges on the rights of the community to raise their children without fear of deadly diseases that were believed to be on the brink of extinction not long ago. It’s one thing to talk of the imperative of individual freedom when it comes to a nationalized health-care scheme such as ObamaCare that imposes decisions on individuals and companies and prevents them from making the choices that make sense for them. The same is true with respect to education issues such as school choice and the right to home school kids. We may all agree that, as Paul said, “The state doesn’t own your children. Parents own the children.” But to apply that belief to an effort to support those who are creating what may eventually prove to a far greater threat to public health than Ebola or some other exotic disease is another thing entirely.

Paul’s statements are significant because, unlike Christie’s foolish comments, they weren’t gaffes but rooted in longstanding beliefs. Much is being made today of Paul’s membership in a doctor’s group that, among other things, has publicized discredited medical theories aimed at undermining public support for vaccination. But rather than harp on his membership, which may have lapsed when he entered the Senate, we should be thinking long and hard about the way his views on this issue reflect a profoundly disturbing view of the world.

Paul has been able to distinguish his own wildly inconsistent foreign-policy views from those of an extremist like his father who views American power as a force for evil in the world. His ability to perform that trick was an act of political genius, especially when you consider that he has always supported his father’s positions in the past. Isolationism or a neo-isolationism that Paul has falsely dubbed a new “realism” can appear defensible in the context of past American blunders abroad. But by defending outlier extremists who are endangering the lives of other citizens because of their bizarre beliefs about medicine or organic food, Paul has planted his feet firmly in extremist territory. Indeed, in doing so he has made the most extreme of his potential rivals for the 2016 presidential nomination—Dr. Ben Carson—look like a model of moderate common sense.

Vaccination may not remain an important issue in the coming year and it would be foolish to dismiss Paul’s chances altogether. But the memory of Paul’s stand will linger. If his once promising campaign ultimately fizzles, we may look back on this controversy as the moment when he started slipping back into the margins where his father always dwelt.

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Marco Rubio Finds His Voice

While the Iowa Freedom Summit got most of the attention over the weekend, three potential Republican presidential candidates—Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz—engaged in a preview of the 2016 GOP foreign-policy debate at a forum in California. Both Cruz and Rubio are the sons of Cuban immigrants, and when the debate turned to the recent Obama administration decision to normalize relations with the island prison, Paul learned the hard way that ideological principles, if paired only with theoretical knowledge, struggle when challenged by personal experience.

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While the Iowa Freedom Summit got most of the attention over the weekend, three potential Republican presidential candidates—Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz—engaged in a preview of the 2016 GOP foreign-policy debate at a forum in California. Both Cruz and Rubio are the sons of Cuban immigrants, and when the debate turned to the recent Obama administration decision to normalize relations with the island prison, Paul learned the hard way that ideological principles, if paired only with theoretical knowledge, struggle when challenged by personal experience.

Foreign policy rarely plays too much of a role in general elections, though since 9/11 it has probably had a more sustained impact on voters, since the country was at war. But whatever its effect on the 2016 general election, it will likely be an important part of the conversation in the battle for the GOP nomination, due in large part to the presence of Rand Paul. The senator advocates a “conservative realism” (though I’ve pointed out in the past why it’s really more of a utopian realism) and thus gives voice to conservative critics of the party’s interventionist status quo. And if Rubio runs—and indications are that he’s leaning toward a run—the GOP will have its most eloquent spokesman for a robust American presence in the world in decades. Add in Cruz’s legendary debating skills, and the three-man forum over the weekend provides a glimpse of the battles yet to come.

According to The Hill, Rubio pressed his advantage on foreign affairs:

In making his case, Rubio argued the next Republican nominee needs to be a foreign policy expert with a “global strategic vision” who understands the “seriousness, breadth, and scope of the challenges we face” internationally.

Taking an apparent swipe at Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who electrified conservatives over the weekend at the Iowa Freedom Summit, Rubio also said the GOP nominee shouldn’t necessarily come from the party’s stable of conservative governors.

“Taking a trip to some foreign city for two days does not make you Henry Kissinger,” Rubio said. Walker is planning a trip to Israel soon in a move meant to bolster his foreign policy credentials.

Governors tend to have a certain advantage over senators, in that they usually have a clear record. This is especially true during times of divided government, and for much of his time as Senate majority leader Harry Reid made it a Democratic priority to grind the Congress to a halt, not even passing basic legislation like budgets. But the other side of that coin is foreign policy: governors don’t usually have much experience there, while senators—if they’re on the right committees—do. And Rubio does.

But the Cuba debate reveals the other advantage Rubio and Cruz have. Namely, the kind of granular and personal understanding of an issue that even a few years on a foreign affairs committee won’t get you. That benefit, of course, has its limits. Personal experience can help a candidate craft a more compelling message, but there is no such thing as a true trump card in such debates. On Cuba, Paul also has one advantage: the polling is on his side. Americans appear ready for a policy shift there. Rubio and Cruz will be arguing passionately and intelligently, but they’ll begin by spotting Paul a few points here.

That, however, could change. One interesting aspect of the polling on Cuba is that President Obama’s policy has received higher marks than his handling of the issue, which suggests that there is still plenty of room to argue about how poorly Obama negotiated this deal. Today’s report from the Associated Press also demonstrates why even the approval numbers of the policy itself could slide back in the other direction if it continues to be mishandled:

Following the highest-level open talks in three decades between the two nations, Cuban officials remained firm in rejecting significant reforms pushed by the United States as part of President Barack Obama’s surprise move to re-establish ties and rebuild economic relations with the Communist-led country.

“One can’t think that in order to improve and normalize relations with the U.S., Cuba has to give up the principles it believes in,” Cuba’s top diplomat for U.S. affairs, Josefina Vidal, told The Associated Press after the end of the talks. “Changes in Cuba aren’t negotiable.”

Paul will be watching this carefully. His one major disadvantage on the Cuba issue is that he is reliant on the Obama administration’s handling of negotiations. The president’s bumbling foreign policy could easily lead to Paul being saddled by a flailing Cuba policy that Paul might have handled better. (It’s inconceivable that, for all his faults, Paul could possibly be a worse negotiator than Obama.)

And Cuba’s not the only such issue. On Iran, unsurprisingly, both Rubio and Cruz took a harder line, saying all options should be on the table while Paul was reduced to straw-man arguments about negotiations. Here, too, his fate for now is in the president’s hands. Fair or not, Obama’s thus-far disastrous Iran policy, which hasn’t stopped its march toward nuclear capability while also enabled it to expand its influence across the Middle East, is what voters will associate with talk of engagement that isn’t backed up by a credible threat of force or additional sanctions.

Obama’s name might not be on the ballot, but thanks to his handling of foreign affairs, his policies will be—not just in the general election, but in both parties’ nominating contests as well.

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Room For Rand? Actually, For Everyone.

Last week, Senator Rand Paul told Sean Hannity that he wouldn’t run for president “just for educational purposes,” but would only do so if he thought if he thought he could win. To which a great many Republicans might have responded that if he felt that way, he should probably pass on the attempt. The chances that Paul could expand on his libertarian base have diminished due to the increased attention on Islamist terror after ISIS and the Paris attacks. But despite all that, Paul isn’t crazy to think that he could win the GOP nomination next year. With the pileup of plausible establishment candidates as well as the plethora of strong conservatives either in the race or considering it, the Republican race is, as Karl Rove wrote yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, “the most volatile and unpredictable Republican contest most Americans have ever seen.” This means that despite the confidence among some large donors that they will be able to pick from Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, or Chris Christie, the sheer size of the field may enable someone far less electable like Paul to win pluralities and actually win the nomination.

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Last week, Senator Rand Paul told Sean Hannity that he wouldn’t run for president “just for educational purposes,” but would only do so if he thought if he thought he could win. To which a great many Republicans might have responded that if he felt that way, he should probably pass on the attempt. The chances that Paul could expand on his libertarian base have diminished due to the increased attention on Islamist terror after ISIS and the Paris attacks. But despite all that, Paul isn’t crazy to think that he could win the GOP nomination next year. With the pileup of plausible establishment candidates as well as the plethora of strong conservatives either in the race or considering it, the Republican race is, as Karl Rove wrote yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, “the most volatile and unpredictable Republican contest most Americans have ever seen.” This means that despite the confidence among some large donors that they will be able to pick from Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, or Chris Christie, the sheer size of the field may enable someone far less electable like Paul to win pluralities and actually win the nomination.

That explains Paul’s confidence as he came out swinging this week, taking shots at establishment heavyweights like Bush and Romney and expressing his disdain for Senator Marco Rubio, who has strongly criticized the Kentucky senator’s support for some of President Obama foreign-policy initiatives. It isn’t clear whether Rubio, who could put forward perhaps the strongest alternative to Paul’s foreign-policy approach among the GOP field, will actually run. But his point about Paul being much closer to Obama on these issues than he is to most Republicans is well taken.

In a relatively small field of candidates, Paul’s foreign-policy views might consign him to the margins just as was the case for his far more extreme father Ron, whose posse of libertarian voters is expected to fall into Rand’s lap. But in a field with so many potential first-tier candidates, it is realistic to think that primaries could be won with relatively small percentages of the vote. Most importantly, if more than one establishment candidate or even three are seriously competing, that changes the entire dynamic of the race and will make it possible, maybe even probable, that someone other than that trio will eventually emerge as the victor.

That runs counter to conventional wisdom about Republican nominating contests that have in the past few cycles revolved around the futile efforts of challengers to knock off front-runners with establishment backing. The Republican National Committee has changed the rules for next year’s contest by limiting the number of debates and by pushing back caucuses and primaries by a month in an effort aimed at staging a contest that will lead to a relatively quick victory by a consensus candidate. But those changes could help create a stalemate in a race where no one candidate has enough support to dominate the field. That means that any one of a large number of candidates, including Paul, is able to construct a scenario that will end with an acceptance speech in Cleveland in July 2016.

If that frightens the establishment, it should. Their assumption that Bush or Romney, or perhaps even Christie (whose chances are, at best, very poor) will prevail is based on the belief that the conservatives in the race simply can’t win the nomination. But in such a scrum, Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, or perhaps even Rick Santorum could theoretically win a few states with very small pluralities and then take some winner-take-all states later in the process that will enable them to amass enough delegates to coast to victory.

Of these, Paul’s scenario is perhaps the most realistic, since he will start with a large chunk of voters already in his pocket. Though his ceiling is relatively low, his base might be enough to win him some victories before any of the alternatives are able to strike back.

It’s far from clear that any of the establishment candidates are strong enough to win the nomination. As poorly received as Romney’s entry into the race has been, few have tried to refute his assumption that Bush’s decision to run against the party’s base may be a fatal mistake. But whether or not he is fated to lose, the former Florida governor is wrong if he thinks the size of the field will not materially impact his chances of winning. If this is an election in which no one will need a consensus to squeak to victory in Republican primaries, don’t be surprised if a consensus about a single candidate never emerges. That means the Republicans may well be stuck with a candidate without much chance to win a general election. That nightmare scenario is exactly what Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are counting on.

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Obama and More Republican Jews

For decades some Republicans have been predicting that the Democrats’ stranglehold on the Jewish vote was coming to an end. So it’s understandable if the Gallup poll released on Tuesday showing a shift in the number of Jews identifying as Democrats or Republicans will encourage the GOP continue its efforts to build support in that community. Nevertheless, more objective observers will be forgiven for being less enthusiastic. The results showed that at the end of 2014, 61 percent of Jews are Democrats and 29 percent Republicans. That’s a shift from only seven years ago when the figures showed the margin to be 71 to 22 percent in favor of the Democrats. But that still gives the Democrats a huge edge among Jews. Assuming that these trends hold steady, it would mean that Republicans could expect to have bare a majority of the Jewish vote in another 21 years. That won’t help their 2016 candidates much, but the question about whether they can really hope to keep gaining ground among Jews depends on which is the more decisive factor in determining Jewish political affiliation: demographic trends leading to a more Orthodox population or Barack Obama.

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For decades some Republicans have been predicting that the Democrats’ stranglehold on the Jewish vote was coming to an end. So it’s understandable if the Gallup poll released on Tuesday showing a shift in the number of Jews identifying as Democrats or Republicans will encourage the GOP continue its efforts to build support in that community. Nevertheless, more objective observers will be forgiven for being less enthusiastic. The results showed that at the end of 2014, 61 percent of Jews are Democrats and 29 percent Republicans. That’s a shift from only seven years ago when the figures showed the margin to be 71 to 22 percent in favor of the Democrats. But that still gives the Democrats a huge edge among Jews. Assuming that these trends hold steady, it would mean that Republicans could expect to have bare a majority of the Jewish vote in another 21 years. That won’t help their 2016 candidates much, but the question about whether they can really hope to keep gaining ground among Jews depends on which is the more decisive factor in determining Jewish political affiliation: demographic trends leading to a more Orthodox population or Barack Obama.

The breakdown of the Gallup poll seems to be very much in line with the results of the Pew Survey on Jewish Americans released in October 2013 that told the story of a community that was rapidly disintegrating due to assimilation and intermarriage. While support for and interest in Israel—a key advantage for Republicans in recent years—seemed to be down among most Jews, it was greater among those who were more religious. The Gallup numbers similarly showed that the more religious a Jew was, the more likely he or she is to identify as a Republican. If those demographic trends hold and more liberal Jews drift away from Judaism as a religion or support for the concept of Jewish peoplehood, that may leave a growing Orthodox community in position to eventually claim a much larger percentage, if not a majority, of the Jewish vote.

But if that is where the Jewish vote is heading, it must be understood that such a triumph, if triumph it is, will be in the context of a rapidly shrinking demographic group. When you consider that Jews are less than two percent of the population (though they vote in much greater numbers than most other groups), a larger share of such a tiny community is not likely to be decisive even if they are concentrated in large states with a lot of electoral votes.

But we’re a long way from even that not altogether likely scenario. For now, Jews remain overwhelming liberal (as COMMENTARY’s Norman Podhoretz explained in his seminal book on the subject) and very much in the pocket of the Democrats under all but the most exceptional of circumstances.

Nevertheless, though we may deprecate the small advantage that will accrue to either party in the event of any change in the Jewish vote, the rather significant shift in the last seven years can’t be ignored. Nor is it possible to avoid the conclusion to be drawn from the fact that this period coincides with the presidency of Barack Obama. Though a large majority of Jews voted first to elect and then (albeit by a smaller margin) to reelect Obama, the corresponding increase in Jews who call themselves Republicans and decrease in Democrats cannot be understood outside of the context of the president’s near constant combat with the government of Israel during his time in office. Except for a 2012 election-year pause for a Jewish charm offensive, the hostility between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has matched the low points of the U.S.-Israel relationship during the administration of the first President George Bush. The attacks on Israel by the president and his foreign-policy team have led to a number of pointless spats. Though the president has not abandoned the alliance altogether (as evidence by the U.S. vote against a Palestinian attempt to get the United Nations Security Council to recognize their independence) the chill in relations is not a secret. That it has taken a toll on Jewish support for his party is obvious.

This is a reminder that even the Republicans’ high point in modern presidential politics among Jews is something of a mirage. In 1980, Ronald Reagan got nearly 40 percent of the Jewish vote against Jimmy Carter, setting up the first great of GOP optimism about the Jewish vote. But Reagan’s success was not duplicated in 1984 when he won an even bigger landslide than his first race. In 1992, the first George Bush helped the GOP hit bottom among Jewish voters with his antagonistic relationship with Israel.

In other words, the size of the Jewish vote for Republicans was more a function of the unacceptability of the Democratic alternative than any great affection for the Gipper. Absent a Democrat that pro-Israel Jews don’t trust, surges in the Jewish vote for Republicans don’t happen.

But as much as anger about Obama’s attitude helped Republicans, heading into the 2016 election cycle they shouldn’t count on this continuing. The likely Democratic standard bearer next year is Hillary Clinton. Though her record on Israel is actually spotty—the GOP will never let her live down her embrace of Suha Arafat and she must bear some of the responsibility for the damage to the alliance during Obama’s first term—Jewish voters are likely to trust her more than they did Obama.

On the other side of the aisle, though Jeb Bush and most of the other potential Republican candidates are friends of Israel, the rising influence of Rand Paul bodes ill for Jewish Republicans. Though he claims to be for Israel too, his neo-isolationist approach to foreign policy is rightly derided as harmful the interests of the Jewish state. Should Paul become more influential in the party in the coming years, Republicans can forget about making gains in the Jewish vote.

Thus, while demography may be helping to tilt the meter incrementally in their favor, Republicans should be more concerned with nominating a candidate that can be relied on to support Israel. Even more to the point, they have to hope the Democrats nominate another would-be president that Jews fear or dislike. Failing that, no one should expect pro-GOP trends to be decisive.

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Can Christie Find His Foreign Policy Voice?

He may be openly considering a run for the presidency but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has a gaping hole in his resume. Though he has been a leading public figure and a likely presidential candidate, Christie has yet to find his voice on the set of issues for which presidents have the most responsibility: foreign policy. But after years of keeping his voluble mouth shut, even when invited to speak in criticism of President Obama, the governor may be ready to start talking. Speaking in the aftermath of the president’s opening to Cuba, Christie had plenty to say about the president’s mistakes. This may be a case of him not being able to resist commenting when a local issue presented itself. But whatever his motivation, if he really wants to be president, he’s going to have to start speaking on foreign affairs with the same abandon and gusto that he employs on domestic issues.

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He may be openly considering a run for the presidency but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has a gaping hole in his resume. Though he has been a leading public figure and a likely presidential candidate, Christie has yet to find his voice on the set of issues for which presidents have the most responsibility: foreign policy. But after years of keeping his voluble mouth shut, even when invited to speak in criticism of President Obama, the governor may be ready to start talking. Speaking in the aftermath of the president’s opening to Cuba, Christie had plenty to say about the president’s mistakes. This may be a case of him not being able to resist commenting when a local issue presented itself. But whatever his motivation, if he really wants to be president, he’s going to have to start speaking on foreign affairs with the same abandon and gusto that he employs on domestic issues.

The local angle on the resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba was the failure of the administration to obtain the return of a fugitive from justice in New Jersey. Joanne Chesimard, a former member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, was involved in a campaign of robberies and attacks on law enforcement officials culminating in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike that left a state trooper dead, the crime for which she was sentenced to life in prison. But her criminal colleagues helped her escape prison in 1979 after which she found her way to Cuba where she lives to this day under the name of Assata Shakur. Though some African-American politicians have opposed efforts to extradite her on the grounds that they believe she was the victim of racially motivated persecution, there’s little doubt about her guilt. In the past, there were reports that the Clinton administration had offered to lift the embargo on Cuba in exchange for the return of Chesimard and 90 other U.S. criminals given safe haven there. Thus, it was disappointing that the Obama administration made no apparent effort to tie her return to the major economic and political concessions the U.S. gave the Castro regime as part of a prisoner exchange. That is especially unfortunate since it was only last year that the FBI formally added her name to its list of “Most Wanted Terrorists.”

Thus, it was both appropriate and timely for the governor to speak up on the issue in a letter sent to the White House in which he rightly said Chesimard’s continued freedom is “an affront” to the citizens of New Jersey and that she must be returned to serve her sentence before any further consideration is given to resuming relations with Havana. But, to his credit, Christie did not stop with that justified yet parochial concern. He went on to say the following:

I do not share your view that restoring diplomatic relations without a clear commitment from the Cuban government of the steps they will take to reverse decades of human rights violations will result in a better and more just Cuba for its people.

In doing so, Christie clearly aligned himself with Senator Marco Rubio and other conservatives who have spoken up against the Cuban deal on the grounds that it will make it less rather than more likely that conditions in the communist island prison will improve as a result of Obama’s decision. It also places Christie in opposition to Senator Rand Paul, who has defended Obama’s opening.

It’s not the first time Christie has been on the other side of an issue from Paul. In the summer of 2013, the governor spoke up and criticized Paul’s effort to force an American retreat from the battle against Islamist terrorists. But that initiative was short lived and, given Christie’s unwillingness to follow up with more details that would demonstrate his command of the issues, seemed to indicate that he wasn’t ready for prime time on foreign policy. That impression was confirmed in the time since then as the governor has often refrained from commenting on foreign policy.

But if he wants to be president, Christie must be able to demonstrate a clear view about America’s place in the world. In the White House, his main antagonists won’t be union bosses or even members of the other party in Congress but rogue nations like Russia, Iran and North Korean. If he is preparing a run for the presidency, the governor must continue to speak out and do so in a consistent and forceful manner. That’s especially true if he aspires, as he seemed to for a while last year, to be the mainstream alternative to Paul’s isolationism. If not, despite his ability to raise money and gain some establishment support, it won’t be possible to take him all that seriously as a candidate or a prospective president.

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