Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), after tentative steps to reach out to the pro-Israel community including a trip to Israel, has now infuriated Christian and Jewish leaders alike.
In an interview with Buzzfeed last week he declared, “There’s a big transition in the Republican Party, but also in the public. People are right about the public being war-weary. They’re right.” He llater said, “I think some within the Christian community are such great defenders of the promised land and the chosen people that they think war is always the answer, maybe even preemptive war. And I think it’s hard to square the idea of a preemptive war and, to me, that overeagerness [to go to] war, with Christianity.”
His chief of staff and key adviser Doug Stafford tried to smooth things over, telling the conservative Washington Free Beacon he wasn’t directing his comments at the country’s largest pro-Zionist group, Christians United For Israel. This has not satisfied conservatives. (Although CUFI accepted the clarification its executive director David Brog told the Free Beacon the he “must disagree with the assertion that
these wars were somehow linked to Israel. Israel did not want the
war with Iraq, and it certainly did not ask for it. And Israel remains the only
nation in the world which is fighting America’s enemies on America’s behalf so
that our sons and daughters don’t have to.”)
Evangelical leader and strong Israel supporter Gary Bauer told me today, “The
GOP has been the party defined in part by support for a strong national defense
and a robust defense of freedom. Obama’s feckless foreign policy, which all too
often has led to Isolationist success in the Middle East coupled with the
perception that over time Iraq and Afghanistan wars will be inconclusive
at best, has eroded traditional conservative support for confronting our
enemies.” He admonished the junior Kentucky senator: “Senator Paul is ‘mining’ these discontents but his characterization of Christians as ‘anxious’ to go to war is an outrage and will hurt him.”
Rand Paul perhaps doesn’t fully appreciate that his foreign policy extremism (he said, for example, he’d be open to containing a nuclear-armed Iran) runs headlong into the concerns of evangelical Christians, a key force in the Republican base and primary presidential system. Pro-Israel foreign policy and U.S. engagement in the world have become central principles even for groups not previously involved in the foreign policy debate.
Concerned Women for America, which had previously focused on social and economic issues, recently made support for the Jewish state a central issue for the group, which has a membership of approximately 500,000, many very active in grassroots politics. CWA’s president Penny Nance reacted via e-mail to Rand Paul: ” I am not sure which Christians Senator Paul was referring to recently. CWA members are very concerned about the President’s inability to clearly articulate our national interest or measurable and attainable goals in connection with Syrian intervention.”
Like Bauer, Nance cautions Rand Paul not to misread the base: “Having said that, most Christian Conservatives understand the dangers of isolationism and the moral and
strategic necessity of defending our ally Israel. In fact, this position
enjoys extremely strong support within the ranks of Republican primary voters.” Sounding a hopeful note she continued, “Senator Paul has a lot to offer Conservative
voters and I look forward to his growth as a leader in the future.
However, part of that process must include a more thoughtful and nuanced
understanding of Israel’s essential role in the Middle East and the U.S.’s
interest in protecting her.”
Jewish Republicans have long been suspicious about Rand Paul, concerned that he had absorbed his father’s anti-Israel views and bent for wacky conspiracies. Many were willing to give him a chance and hoped a visit to Israel would better educate him. However, this incident is reinforcing their instincts that he is trouble.
A senior GOP leader with close ties to the Jewish community was shaken by Rand Paul’s remarks. He told me this morning, “The recent comments by Sen. Paul regarding Christian evangelicals saying they want war in the Middle East is deeply troubling on many levels. It’s factually wrong and demonstrates a lack of knowledge and naiveté on the part of Paul.” Like Bauer and Nance, he says that Paul’s remark “defames Christian conservatives, which by the way, is not smart politics for someone looking to run for president in 2016. Many conservatives are very worried about the pull on the party, led by Sen. Paul, to a neo-isolationist posture.”
In short, what sounds good to anti-military libertarians raises grave concerns about Paul’s views among significant factions of the GOP. It is one thing to criticize Obama’s foreign policy — as the three I interviewed have done; it’s quite another to go left of the president. That dog just won’t hunt among mainstream conservatives and value voters in the GOP.