Rand Paul says he scares Democrats. Should he?

Here's Rand Paul on what a 2016 matchup between himself and de facto Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton might look like: "If you wanna see a transformational election in our country, let the Democrats put forward a war hawk like Hillary Clinton, and you'll see a transformation like you've never seen."

While I'm not sure Clinton would describe herself as a "war hawk" she has tended -- as Secretary of State and in the Senate -- to favor more aggressive approaches to international conflicts then those advocated by President Obama or, for that matter, Paul.

Consider:

* Clinton, while in the Senate, voted for the use of force resolution against Iraq in 2002. Obama, spoke out in opposition to it. Paul, who, like Obama, wasn't in the Senate at the time of the vote, has worked to repeal the use of force resolution.

* Clinton supported a larger troop surge in Afghanistan in 2009. Obama chose a smaller one. Paul penned an op-ed -- along with two Democratic Senators -- advocating for a faster withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan than Obama proposed.

*  Clinton was a strong voice advocating military intervention in Libya.  President Obama eventually sided with her.  Paul opposed military intervention.

* Clinton favored more directly and broadly arming Syrian rebels early in the civil war, a move Obama resisted. Paul opposed arming the rebels.

Given that record, if Clinton and Paul were their party's respective nominees, it seems certain that she would be more hawkish in her approach to nearly every major international conflict than he would be. And that fact alone would be a remarkable turnabout -- given that Republicans have built much of their electoral success over the past three-plus decades around a muscular foreign policy. (It remains to be seen whether Paul's non-interventionist views will be disqualifying for him in the Republican primary fight.)

"It's pretty funny to see Rand Paul trying to direct Democrats on policy and politics alike," said Adrienne Elrod, communications director for Correct The Record, a Clinton-aligned super PAC. "He's too cute by half, and as a whole,  he is too dangerous for our nation."

The more intriguing question is whether Paul or Clinton would be closer to where the American public stands on what role the U.S. should play in foreign conflicts.

While there is a natural tendency to assume Clinton's hawkish views would be preferred, there's reason to believe that the cumulative effect of a decade's worth of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- wars strong majorities don't believe were worth fighting -- has fundamentally altered how people view the U.S.'s place in the world community.

Take this amazing chart via Wall Street Journal politics editor Aaron Zitner from an April NBC-WSJ poll:

And, the NBC-WSJ poll is far from an outlier. In a January Pew poll, six in ten people said "we should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home" while just 35 percent said "it's best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs." A June CBS-New York Times survey showed 58 percent saying that the U.S. should not take a leading role "among all other countries in the world in trying to solve international conflicts" while just 37 percent said America should play a leading role. An August NBC-WSJ poll found that just 35 percent of people were either "very" or "somewhat" satisfied with the U.S.'s role in the world while 62 percent were very or somewhat dissatisfied. Back in late 1995, 52 percent said they were satisfied with the U.S. role while 43 percent said they were not.

Support for the U.S. playing a more narrow role in world affairs tends to run higher among Democrats and independents than it does among Republicans. (See my point above about Paul's challenge in selling his views to Republican primary voters.) Whether the difference between Clinton and Paul on that set of issues would be enough to convince some Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents to vote for him, however, remains to be seen. It's simply too far away to begin predicting what the key issues of the 2016 presidential election will be.

"How things have always been" only holds true until those things change. Remember how America would never elect a black president named Barack Obama? Or how the Senate would never invoke the nuclear option? One day the current prevailing conventional wisdom about what the public wants the U.S. to do -- and be -- internationally may find its way onto that list.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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