September 13, 2013

Over at the Fix today, Chris Cillizza declared declared Rand Paul the frontrunner for the 2016 GOP presidential primary. I continue to think that, far from the frontrunner, he’s still not really a viable candidate.

Presidential nominees, or those who come close to capturing their party’s nomination, meet two tests: they have conventional qualifications (generally, they’re Senators and Governors), and they fall within the mainstream of their party on important party issues. Rand Paul will pass the first test by 2016. But the idea that he meets the second one is probably an illusion.

All of this turns on a larger question: Whether or not the Republican Party has really changed on issues of foreign policy and national security.

In recent months we’ve seen considerable Republican support for what is widely described as a neo-isolationist foreign policy tendency within the party: Opposition to intervention in Syria, drone strikes, bulk NSA surveillance, and other anti-terrorism-related civil liberties abuses under Obama. It’s roughly the Ron Paul foreign policy platform.

But there’s no way to really know whether this indicates some kind of serious, long term shift. I don’t believe it at all. A much more likely explanation for all of these positions is that a lot of Republicans place opposition to the Kenyan socialist usurper in the White House ahead of, well, just about anything else.

If that shift isn’t real, Rand Paul will be vetoed by those within the party who care about foreign policy issues — just as his father was. The Paul foreign policy platform has traditionally been anathema to pretty much everyone within the party who is seriously focused on foreign policy, whether it’s neocons (especially those with a strong focus on Israel), foreign policy “realists,” and McCain-type general belligerents. And that’s not to mention another important GOP constituency: defense contractors.

Of course, some Republicans who “stand with Rand” have done so because they really do want to see a different GOP on these issues. We know, however, from previous nomination contests that only some 10 or 15 percent of the party has really fit into that group. Even if that faction has grown, it seems extremely unlikely that it’s anywhere close to enough to capture the nomination. Nor does it seem likely that Paul can moderate his views sufficiently in time to avoid a veto from the GOP policy establishment.

Parties use nominations, especially presidential nominations, to decide who they really are. If Rand Paul is to represent what the Republican Party really is going to stand for in 2016, it’s going to take a major upheaval within the party on these issues, not just the positioning we’re now seeing in opposition to Obama. It’s just very hard to believe that the party of Reagan is anywhere close to making that leap.