In a video making its way around news sites, a woman in Iowa identifying herself as a DREAMer approaches Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). King, notoriously anti-immigrant and repeatedly denounced by fellow Republicans, engages with the woman. But with a jerk of his head, a pull of the arm and the sound of a chair loudly scraping the floor (according to reports), Rand Paul’s aide gets Paul to safety. Paul, to many people’s surprise given his efforts at GOP outreach, follows dutifully along.
This is a shame on many levels. First, a U.S. senator, whatever his beliefs, should be able to stand on his own and engage politely with those with whom he disagrees or agrees, especially if he has made an issue about growing the party. Second, why wouldn’t Paul stand up and exclaim, “Then vote for me!”? He was an early and rather consistent voice in favor of DREAM Act legislation. This would have been a great time to make a connection and improve the image of his party, exactly what he aims to do. And third, by not engaging, Paul literally left the conversation to an egregious anti-immigrant congressman. (If he doesn’t like the obnoxious anti-immigrant views King holds and the controversies it brings, he should have lunch with someone else.)
Paul’s longtime adviser Doug Stafford was not there at the time but spoke to the aide and told me, “He was due at a media availability, and left to be where he was expected to be.” It’s not clear why the aide would have dragged Paul away so suddenly, mid-bite. In any case, in a world of ubiquitous cellphone cameras, every interaction or non-interaction can be captured, and this one looks bad. There is no stage direction that can be entirely concealed.
Paul has been selective, some critics would say evasive, in choosing to talk to minority and young audiences only on discrete topics (anti-drones, anti-National Security Agency surveillance) that do not necessarily run afoul of other, broader conservative audiences. In a national campaign, however, you have to talk to the whole electoral gamut, pretty much in the same way or your words come back to bite you. Paul will need to, if he’s serious about immigration reform, make the case strongly to whatever audiences he encounters. They may not like it. But you don’t grow the party by talking only to people who already agree with you. That means being candid with young people and social conservatives about gay marriage and talking frankly about ending the “deportation mentality” (which he has done) to the Conservative Political Action Conference and to DREAMers. It’s not the worst thing in the world to get a frosty reception from some; it’s the price one pays when going fishing for new voters. (And Paul’s likely not going to get the Steve King anti-immigrant voter anyway.)
More problematic was his encounter just before the event when discussing aid to Israel, which, as we’ve previously noted, he used to favor reducing or eliminating and now says he never did. The Wall Street Journal reports: “Another awkward moment on the campaign trail came during a stop in nearby Omaha, Neb., where Mr. Paul rejected a reporter’s suggestion that he wanted to reduce aid to Israel. ‘Don’t mischaracterize my position on Israel,’ said Mr. Paul, noting that he voted last week to give Israel $225 million for its missile-defense program. Paul’s remarks drew a rebuke from Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. ‘Now that he’s running for president, he’s trying to rewrite history,’ she said in a written statement with the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Rabbi Jack Moline.”
This is revealing of a central problem with Paul’s potential presidential campaign. Rather than deny what he said previously on a range of foreign policy issues — which is memorialized in transcripts and video — he’d do much better on these issues (the impetus for World War II, Dick Cheney’s motives in the Iraq war, aid to Israel, cutting defense, reducing bases around the world) to say, “I was wrong. I changed my mind.” That would be more honest. Voters can decide whether they think the conversion is genuine or not. But what he can’t do — and here is the problem that will strangle a presidential run in its infancy — is to muse about containment of Iran and keep playing to the libertarian base with positions on slashing defense, preventing drones from targeting American jihadists overseas, eliminating NSA, and disavowing interest in the outcome in Iraq (and then modifying his statement) and expect to be accepted as a mainstream Republican on foreign policy. He has to choose — a Paulite or a mainstream foreign policy. Even if he chooses the latter, voters might not believe that he is being candid or is sufficiently knowledgeable or experienced to replace a president who was also a freshman senator and foreign policy novice, but at least he won’t appear to be concealing his own record.
UPDATE: A Rand Paul spokesman insists Paul is a good friend of Israel and never “targeted” aid to Israel. (This is of zero comfort to friends of Israel, of course, and merely emphasizes that an isolationist foreign policy often conflicts with support for Israel.) The spokesman also insisted that Paul is “exactly” where the Israeli prime minister is in saying “Israel will be better off when it does not have to count on anyone else for its protection.” I am fairly certain neither Benjamin Netanyahu or any other Israeli official thinks this is happening anytime soon. Moreover, if Paul is concerned about the prime minister’s views, he might take a firm stance against containment of Iran (not muse that it should remain an option) and favor the Menendez-Kirk Iran sanctions bill rather than taking Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s position in opposing sanctions during the negotiations. Finally, the Paul spokesman boasts that the senator has introduced a Stand with Israel Act proposing a cut off of aid to the Palestinian Authority, which is both irrelevant (there is no aid being requested or likely under circumstances to be added by any House appropriator) and misguided (both the United States and Israel need the Palestinian Authority to step up to the plate both in Gaza and in the West Bank on counterterrorism). Paul needs better arguments, but really he needs a better record on Israel.