David Corn of Mother Jones, who highlights yet another attack from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on former vice president Dick Cheney — this time repeating the left’s mantra that enhanced interrogation was “torture,” writes: “This is a clash of cultures in which motives are deeply questioned. It seems Paul views the most recent vice president of his own party as a treasonous war-profiteer who gave a green light to criminal activity. Cheney considers Paul and his ilk as ill-informed and dangerous isolationists. ” Corn is correct on both counts, but he falters when he concludes, “With a wide-open campaign for the Republican presidential nomination nearing, this uncivil civil war can be expected to grow in ferocity, as the GOP continues to wrestle with its past and future.” That might have been true a year ago but the dial has been reset by a wide range of factors.
Most unexpectedly, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), beloved by the tea party, has come out strongly as a hawk on foreign policy and defender of the actual Reagan tradition (not the phony one offered by Paul, who wants to spend less on the military and voted against aid to Ukraine). Not only is Cruz a good barometer of the base, but also he is making President Obama’s views, some of which Paul shares, an anathema. As defense cuts, U.S. inaction in the Middle East and willingness to play along with Iran diplomacy become firmly branded as liberal, Obama policies, Paul will have a hard time convincing primary voters he’s a viable commander in chief. And the world seems infinitely more dangerous with a less engaged commander in chief.
Certainly, Vladimir Putin has made hash out of the Russian reset, but the idea that trade and talking are substitutes for exercise of American power (soft and hard) has been blown apart with the demise of Ukrainian sovereignty. Those who believe we need to actively help our friends and stand up to aggressors, the internationalists, have no better example than Putin’s repression at home and his land grabs.
There is a growing recognition that one can be a critic of the Iraq War and yet not throw caution to the wind and join the isolationists. Reihan Salam speaks for many Republicans when he writes: “Why do I still believe that the U.S. should maintain an overwhelming military edge over all potential rivals, and that we as a country ought to be willing to use our military power in defense of our ideals as well as our interests narrowly defined? There are two reasons: The first is that American strength is the linchpin of a peaceful, economically integrating world; and the second is that we know what it looks like when America embraces amoral realpolitik, and it’s not pretty.” That realization has deepened with the collapse of Obama’s foreign policy in Syria, his retrenchment from the Middle East more generally and bipartisan skepticism over his approach to Iran. Paul is seen on the other side of the divide — standing with liberal critics of U.S. interventionism.
This extends to defense spending as well. Salam also concludes that “The U.S. military must have the power and the reach to defend countries far from our borders”; this is directly at odds with Paul’s formulation of fewer troops and fewer bases overseas. Unfortunately for Paul, the realization that we’ve cut defense too much, have damaged readiness and have sacrificed national security can come to the GOP. In the just-passed budget all but 12 members voted to put back in substantial defense spending (and the primary concern of those was certainly not defense spending).
In short, with the passage of time, many Republicans have recognized that you don’t need to embrace isolationism to have misgivings about aspects of the Bush foreign policy. Paul badly overshot his mark if he was looking for a less interventionist but still reasonable foreign policy.
Moreover, like his father Ron Paul, Rand Paul is his own worst enemy. He, for example, made the mistake of insulting Christian Zionists as “war mongers.” They didn’t trust him before and that remark as well as his opposition to the latest round of sanctions pose a significant problem with these voters, who are the people who show up in large numbers in Iowa and elsewhere to select the presidential nominee. At some level Paul knew he had to make a sale with these people (hence his trip to Israel last year); he didn’t, and it will hurt him. And as we’ve seen with the drip-drip-drip of videos of past remarks, Paul has left a trail a mile long supporting the view that his world view is distorted by far right conspiracies and naiveté. He doesn’t have to be as bad as his father to nevertheless be totally unacceptable to a lot of Republicans.
On issues in which there is virtual consensus in the GOP, Paul stands with the left. Paul’s views on Gitmo (close it), trials for terrorists (here in the heartland) and incarceration (federal prisons) have zero sell with Republicans. As long as Iran continues to menace the West, Paul’s remarks speaking approvingly of “containment” and his opposition to sanctions during the interim deal will plague him.
Paul always goes just a little too far, as on the National Security Agency. Cruz also raised red flags, but he didn’t praise Edward Snowden as a figure like Martin Luther King, Jr. as Paul does. Cruz is not about to lionize the man who stole secrets and put them out for our enemies to see before decamping to Russia. Cruz’s office confirmed to Right Turn that Cruz believes if Snowden saw something he thought was illegal or unconstitutional he should have gone through whistleblower channels. Some Republicans might not agree with either of them on the NSA, but virtually everyone can tell the difference between Cruz and Paul. There is something intensely distasteful in comparing a traitor to the greatest civil rights figure of the 20th century.
If you took all the potential candidates for the GOP 2016 nomination, including some who have shown no interest in running, you won’t come up with another candidate who shares Paul’s views. This is not an evenly balanced fight. Rather it is Paul vs. everyone else. And it will be in the interests of every other candidate in 2016 to hammer that contrast home.