The conventional wisdom is that the GOP is evenly split between internationalists like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and isolationists like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) The sides were never as even as the media might have suggested, but in the wake of recent events, these “GOP divided” cliches need a rest.
The reason is simple: President Obama. There is near-unanimity among Republicans that Obama has lost international credibility and the respect of foreign leaders. There is no contingent other than the Paul family for a pro-Putin foreign policy. The party (again with the exception of Rand Paul and one other senator) is fully on board with anti-Iran sanctions. There is widespread concern about the cuts to defense and the president’s approach toward the Middle East. No one ever accused Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) of disappointing the conservative base; he more than anyone else of late has increased the volume on the anti-Obama foreign policy discussion on the right. Even on Syria, which divided even hawkish Republicans, there is now consensus that Obama’s weakness has had an impact on Vladimir Putin’s risk assessment on Ukraine.
Frankly, I don’t think the GOP has been this unified on foreign policy since Obama took office. And if political handicappers would follow the foreign policy debate a bit more closely, they’d notice that Rand Paul has further isolated himself on the right, in part, by accusing Christian Zionists of war-mongering. You really have to wonder whether Rand Paul is going to do that much better than his father when he’s scared off business Republicans, disappointed Silicon Valley backers on immigration reform (he was for it before he voted against it) and, most important, alienated Christian conservatives. The notion that we should “nation build at home” — voiced by the president and by Rand Paul — is now akin to Neville Chamberlain’s “peace for our time,” a sign of utter and dangerous cluelessness on national security.
Maybe all these issues will fade by 2016, but mainstream media prognosticators underestimate the degree to which a strong United States and a resolute pro-Israel foreign policy are gateway issues for religious voters. As with pro-abortion politics on the left, Israel bona fides on the right are a strong barrier to entry against a character like Rand Paul who’d contemplate containment of Iran, something so far out of the mainstream that not even J Street would openly advocate it.
Foreign policy isn’t usually the top issue on voters’ minds unless things are going badly for the United States in the world (e.g. Vietnam in 1968, Iraq in 2006). Things are not going well in the world for the United States and conservatives, fairly or not, hold the president accountable. On that — and on opposition to his policies and tactics — there is close to unanimity. For these purposes, Rand Paul is the odd man out.