The most important moment of Rand Paul’s young career

September 4, 2013

Sometimes a man and a moment meet. The man is Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. The moment is the ongoing congressional debate over whether or not to sign off on President Obama's desire to use military force against Syria.

Paul, who is an all-but-certain 2016 presidential candidate, is the most high-profile voice opposing the idea of using American military might to punish Syria for an alleged chemical weapons attack against its own people the Obama administration says killed more than 1,400 people -- a stance that not only sets him against Obama but also puts him on the opposite side of many within his own party.

"What you have occurring is the first real policy engagement between a resurgent realist foreign policy worldview lead by Sen. Paul, versus the interventionist McCain and Graham wing which has been dominant in the party since 9/11," said one Paul ally familiar with the senator's thinking. "The debate on foreign policy and the appropriate use of U.S. military power was going to be happening at some point, but it is now happening in a case that creates an excellent opportunity for Sen. Paul."

Paul is clearly embracing that opportunity -- as he not only bantered back and forth with Secretary of State John Kerry during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the matter Tuesday but then told reporters on a conference call later in the day that he has been "talking to other senators, who I think are like-minded. I'm also talking to conservative constitutionalists in the House."

How the debate in Congress plays out over the next few weeks -- particularly among so-called "establishment" Republicans in the House and Senate -- will serve as the first major test of not only how much power Paul actually has within the Capitol but also how much the Republican Party has (and/or is) changing.

The first test will be in the Senate, where Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, in particular, is not only widely regarded as a likely 2016 candidate but has been careful to leave little breathing room between his voting record and that of Paul over the past few years.

On Tuesday, Rubio sounded a wary note in his questions to Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. "Quite frankly, I’m a bit skeptical that what the president is asking for [is sufficient] for these objectives," Rubio said. He did not, however, come out for or against any resolution.

If Rubio winds up as a "yes" on the Syria resolution -- still a possibility at this point, despite his recent skepticism -- he will be keeping with a long line of Republican thinking, dating back at least to Ronald Reagan, that embraces a hawkish approach to foreign policy. But, he will be breaking with public sentiment, which is on Paul's side -- even among self identified Republicans, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News survey released Tuesday.

And, Rubio will be ensuring that if he and Paul face off in 2016 -- and they likely will -- that there will be a very clear difference on foreign policy between the two men. The question is which of the two will have helped themselves with the party base heading into 2016. Conventional wisdom in years past would say Rubio, but the growing strain of libertarianism within the GOP could well change that equation.

Assuming the resolution passes the Senate -- and even Paul conceded during Tuesday's hearing that is the likely outcome -- the next test of the Kentucky senator's influence will come in the House, where Republicans are not only in the majority but there are a large(r) cadre of libertarian-minded GOPers.

If the measure fails in the House, Paul is likely to get a big piece of the credit/blame -- particularly since House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have come out in support of the resolution.

"Success for Sen. Paul on this will be demonstrating there are a larger number of Republicans, both elected and policy experts, who agree with his assessment of the situation as it relates to our national interests, the strategic objectives, and the potential consequences," said the Paul source.

Win or lose on the coming votes, Paul has already succeeded at one level. He has installed himself at the center of a critical foreign policy debate that has both short and long term impacts and consequences -- and in so doing has presented himself in a very real way as a different sort of Republican spokesman/candidate.

"What I find impressive is that while he has only been here a short time he is immediately looked to by his colleagues and the media as a guide to what a huge chunk of voters are thinking," said Billy Piper, a former chief of staff to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "You may agree with his views or not, but at the end of the day he is thoughtful and clearly has the pulse of a large segment of the population."

Fixbits:

Senators reached an agreement over the wording of a new resolution authorizing military action in Syria.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton backs Obama on military action against the Syrian government.

Paul's not ruling out a standing filibuster over Syria.

A new poll shows New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio running away with the Democratic mayoral primary.

Republican Carl DeMaio won't run for mayor of San Diego. He's sticking with his campaign for the seat of Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.).

2010 nominee Charlie Baker (R) will reportedly run for Massachusetts governor again.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) made light of being caught playing a game on his phone during Tuesday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) declined to take a position on whether the U.S. should launch a military strike against Syria.

Christie will help the Republican National Committee raise money in Texas next week. A big Dallas Cowboys fan, the governor will also attend the team's home opener.

Must-reads:

"Kerry, Hagel lay out military objectives during Senate hearing on Syria strike" -- Anne Gearan and Ed O'Keefe, Washington Post

"Nancy Pelosi’s test" -- Ginger Gibson, Politico

"On Syria, Obama faces a skeptical public" -- David A. Fahrenthold and Paul Kane, Washington Post

"Jackson keeps GOP establishment at arm’s length in Va. lieutenant governor campaign" -- Laura Vozella, Washington Post

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Sean Sullivan · September 3, 2013