Rand Paul is discovering that being a libertarian-ish senator with a knack for getting the press to pay attention to your sometimes slightly-contrarian views is one thing, while running for president is something else entirely. Paul has moved to paint himself as an outsider and independent thinker in advance of 2016 — but he’s now learning that taking positions that challenge even secondary elements of Republican doctrine is not going to fly.
When there’s a party consensus, a presidential candidate can only contradict it as long as no one’s paying attention. There’s no such thing as an independent-thinking presidential candidate; only one who is sticking to positions he hasn’t yet renounced, but will eventually. Ironically, it’s the GOP, whose members work so hard to characterize themselves as outsiders beholden to no one, where orthodoxy is most strictly enforced.
Paul has now been confronted with the fact that back in 2011 he proposed ending all foreign aid, which seemed like a good idea for him at the time — after all, did you know that most foreign aid goes to…foreigners?!? Egad. Foreign aid is quite unpopular, in part because people wildly overestimate how much we spend on it.
Paul’s problem: The largest recipient of foreign aid is Israel, which gets about $3 billion per year in American taxpayer money. We might want to debate whether Israel really needs that money from us. But that’s not a debate we’re likely to have any time soon, and is sure as heck isn’t a debate anyone’s going to have in a Republican presidential primary, where “supporting Israel” has become an article of dogma.
So Paul had to backtrack. He tried to argue: “I never really proposed [cutting off aid to Israel] in the past.” That could only be true under some elaborate and tortured definition of “really” or “proposed.” In fact, Paul had even made those points about Israel being able to fund itself without our help. But he won’t be saying that kind of thing anymore.
For someone who has built his political brand on being different than other Republicans — by virtue of being a quasi-libertarian and a relative newcomer to politics — this must be a painful ritual to have to enact.
Two months ago, Paul might have brushed off a question about Israel by saying vaguely that we have to look at all parts of the budget to bring down spending. But with Israel on the front pages, he has to line up behind the rest of the party and pledge to support Israel forever and in every way. If the party is genuinely divided on an issue, a candidate has some room to move; this is true of government surveillance, where Paul takes a more libertarian stance than some other Republicans. But once there’s something approaching a consensus, as there is on Israel, dissent will not be tolerated, no matter what you might have said in the past.
Almost all the 2016 GOP candidates are going to portray the race as a contest between a bunch of establishment Washington insiders and one independent outsider (who just happens to be whoever is telling you this — nearly all of them will try to make the claim). But very quickly, they will all have to jump through the same hoops and take the same pledges, even if in some cases it means renouncing their previous positions. By the time it’s over this process will make them substantively almost identical, whatever minor differences they had at the outset.
So if Rand Paul wants everyone to think he’s an independent-minded outsider, maybe he should forget about using issues to do it. Maybe he ought to get himself a ranch and a cowboy hat. It’s worked before.