Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is plainly positioning to run for president in 2016. He has tried to bridge the gap between isolationists-libertarians and conservatives.
His piece in the Wall Street Journal exemplifies his approach:
No one objects to balancing security against liberty. No one objects to seeking warrants for targeted monitoring based on probable cause. We’ve always done this.
What is objectionable is a system in which government has unlimited and privileged access to the details of our private affairs, and citizens are simply supposed to trust that there won’t be any abuse of power. This is an absurd expectation. Americans should trust the National Security Agency as much as they do the IRS and Justice Department.
His hyperbole is factually deficient, pointing to a series of dilemmas that will plague him if he runs for president. Of course the government does not have “unlimited and privileged” power to snoop on us. As has been discussed many times, the Verizon program, for example, is subject to statute, a court order and congressional oversight. If the government wants to look at “the details of our private affairs,” it must have individualized suspicion and a warrant.
In dealing with Rand Paul, it is hard to know whether he doesn’t understand such (any?) nuances or whether he doesn’t care since it is all in service of a higher cause — to make us reject the assertion of American power. In that respect, he’s much better than Obama at pushing voters in that direction.
But here’s the thing: Republicans and voters in general want Gitmo open (Rand Paul does not), want the government to “connect the dots,” want a robust military and want us to be in a position to protect commerce, defend allies and do more than prepare expert emergency response teams after the bombs go off. Rand Paul’s nod to these concerns (including close ties to Israel) is largely rhetorical, while his policy objectives pushing the libertarian line are quite specific.
It is far from clear that his national security line, farther to the left than the president’s, is going to sell well among Republican primary voters. Obama thinks the world is too good for us, while Rand Paul thinks we’re too good for the world. But the end result is the same — disarming, dropping anti-terrorism tactics, disregarding human rights, retrenchment.
He perhaps overestimates the support for his approach among GOP voters. It is not just “hawks” who want a forward-leaning foreign policy, but evangelicals for whom foreign policy is a significant issue. Will he be able to make up those losses with college students and minorities (who will likely want to cast their votes in Democratic primaries)? I don’t see how the math adds up.
There is also the ideological cul-de-sac in which he places himself. His suspicion about intrusive government doesn’t extend, for example to immigration reform, which will cost something and require an array of technology. That’s fine, but it’s not fine to marshal our resources to defend the lives of Americans?
His tactic suffers from the same malady that Obama has. Obama, the former community organizer, ran as the guy who’d change business as usual and against special interests. When you become government, you have to either round up others to blame or be willing to maintain a total disconnect between rhetoric and actions. It is hard to seek power while making a career of decrying power.
Taking a step back, the problems he faces in both the political realm (Will Republicans buy this?) and the policy realm (How exactly do you defend Israel by closing Gitmo, slashing defense and mulling containment of Iran?) point to the absence of experienced, thoughtful advisers. He seems to operate with the notion that a few clipped sentences is all that is required of him, rather than some in-depth analysis of the consequences of his views or even the details of the topics he discusses. If he is to improve as a senator or make a serious run for the White House, he must widen his circle of advisers, start getting more extensive briefings from people with experience and expertise who can provide a critical eye to assess his language and tactics.
There are many promising aspects to Rand Paul: his support for broadening the appeal of the GOP, a more laid-back style, his embrace of immigration reform and his understanding that more government doesn’t necessarily means better government. But these are the sort of things that get you to the Senate when talking is most of what you do. To be a successful senator and presidential candidate, he’ll need to address his serious drawbacks (incoherence on foreign policy, playing loose with the facts, etc.).