When Mother Jones published a video of soon-to-be Sen. Rand Paul claiming that former vice president Dick Cheney pushed the Iraq War because of his ties to Halliburton, it was a good reminder of how much the potential 2016 presidential candidate differs from the rest of his party on foreign policy.
Unless an unpredictable international event in the next two years swallows the United States' attention span like the early years of the wars in the Middle East did, it's unclear his views, a malleable mush of his father's orthodox ban on intervention and a Reaganish devotion to "peace through strength," will matter much. Given the increasingly extracurricular role international affairs play on the list of important issues voters bring out once every four years, foreign policy seems unlikely — on the surface — to keep Rand Paul from the nomination if his party decides he's the one to beat. On the other hand, potential presidential candidates have been forced to air their views on international affairs quite a bit the past few months, as unforeseen events have crept into American policy discussions.
Let's unpack how foreign policy could affect Rand Paul's future political aspirations.
Ron Paul and foreign policy
There are considerable challenges in breaking with the Republican Party on foreign policy, something Rand Paul is well aware of thanks to his family's history.
Ron Paul is one of the most ideologically consistent politicians in the United States, and most of his policy ideas can end with, "because it would shrink government." On foreign policy, Ron Paul thinks the United States spends an inordinate amount. The best way to trim the budget is by stopping interventions and slashing foreign aid. While many of his fellow Republicans also advocate for a smaller government, the savings usually stop at America's shore. Paul Ryan's latest budget plan calls for extensive domestic savings, but a still-robust budget for the Pentagon.
Over his three presidential campaigns, Paul's stubbornly libertarian foreign policy lens defined his campaign -- and his supporters. Although Paul always rounded up a merry band of young libertarians to support his campaigns, the major donors, strategists and pundits in the Republican Party never took him too seriously, although his strengths as a candidate became more notable each time he tried. The rest of the political establishment never took him very seriously either. Here's a graph of news coverage of the 2012 presidential contenders in 2011.
Regardless of the perception inside and outside the Republican Party, Ron Paul was doing something that resonated with a lot of people. His 2012 campaign raised more money than any other Republican candidate except for Mitt Romney. The top five employers who supported Ron Paul? The U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, Google and the Department of Defense. Not only were Ron Paul's foreign policy views catching, but they were resonating with the same people tasked with carrying out that policy.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul seems to have picked up on the pros and cons of his father's foreign policy views. He's non-interventionist enough to appeal to libertarians, winning his dad's approval for being one of two senators to vote against the Ukraine aid package, but he's also willing to see a bit of gray in international affairs. He wrote an op-ed for Time Magazine saying that it is the United States' "role as a global leader to be the strongest nation in opposing Russia’s latest aggression."
For those who complain about his foreign policy views, from the left and the right, he has a ready defense: “My position on foreign policy and the arena of national defense is that it’s the most important thing that the federal government does. So anybody that wants to imply that my beliefs on foreign policy or defense are any less strong than theirs really misinterprets both my position and history.” The 2016 race is a long time away, and as Crimea and Syria show us, a lot could change with foreign policy in the meantime. Rand Paul seems to be staking out a comfortable place in the middle for the time being, allowing for a bit more flexibility than either of the positions staked out by the hawks or his dad.
However, Rand Paul's understanding that he can't mimic his father and expect to win — and his slight shuffle to try and win over the D.C. talkers and donors whose whispers can help kickstart a campaign — also inspires critics and riles up the flip-flopper patrol.
A Politico Magazine piece titled "Rand Paul's Foreign Policy Is a Mess" lays out the problem that faces Paul:
Politically speaking, Paul faces an intractable dilemma: If he embraces his inner libertarian, he’ll stir excitement among liberty-loving younger Republicans — GOP strategist Bill Kristol cuttingly calls them “Snowden Republicans” — as well as many on the left who take a dim view of U.S. power and motives. But he will alienate many social conservatives and tea party “patriots” who still believe in American exceptionalism, as well as mainstream Republicans who see military strength as a more reliable basis for U.S. security than withdrawing from a fractious world.
So maybe Paul has no choice but to keep trying to reconcile incompatible conceptions of America’s role in the world. So far, he’s produced only a muddle.
As nice as the middle looks for any future electoral considerations, the middle is not a comfortable place if the sum of your foreign policy views make no sense, which is the conclusion many on the right who never agreed with Paul in the first place have made about his world view. Jennifer Rubin wrote a piece on "Rand Paul’s fake foreign policy," The American Spectator said "Ron Paul Flunks Foreign Policy Test," Sen. John McCain called him a "wacko bird," and the list is a long one.
However, as many a successful presidential candidate figured out when they were blasted for having no foreign policy experience and bad ideas of how foreign policy works, surrounding yourself with people who know lots about foreign policy can do wonders — which is exactly what many other potential GOP candidates are doing.
Public opinion and foreign policy
Despite the challenges that faced Ron Paul with foreign policy, Rand Paul is also lucky in that public opinion is sort of moving toward him. Americans increasingly think the United States should mind its own business internationally.
Few people thought the United States had a responsibility to intervene in Syria.
A majority of Americans want the United States to keep its distance with the situation in Ukraine.
So many Republicans think his views are just what the Party needs.The distaste for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that helped propel Ron Paul's campaign despite the misgivings of his party and the political establishment are reasons that Rand Paul could be successful in 2016.
But, these poll numbers shouldn't be read as straight up isolationism, the Council on Foreign Affairs warns:
Aspiring presidential candidates who read only the headlines about the Pew Research-CFR poll may be tempted to conclude that isolationism will be the winning foreign policy theme on the 2016 campaign trail. That would be a mistake. Americans are ambivalent about global involvement, not opposed to it. So the most successful candidate will likely be the one whose own mixed message taps both isolationist and internationalist sentiments.
Through his ever "evolving" foreign policy stance, it's clear Rand Paul is trying to tap into this.
But what about the donors?
This is one way that foreign policy could definitely become a disadvantage for Paul. At the Republican Jewish coalition spring meeting last week, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Scott Walker met with Sheldon Adelson, one of the most sought-after election bankrollers. One of the top qualifications for appealing to Adelson is pledging unwavering devotion to Israel if elected. (Christie had to offer many apologies at the event when he made a verbal faux pas in regards to Israel.)
Many of the people attending the event were not Rand Paul fans. Zeke Miller at Time Magazine talked to several donors at the conference who think Adelson is prepared to spend heavily against Paul in the primaries if he succeeds.
Last fall, Paul made some comments about preemptive war and the promised land that the Christians United Front for Israel called "slander." When he refused to support the use of force in Syria, he was quickly condemned by similar organizations. Many articles about Rand Paul's foreign policy address his "Israel problem."
Even if the American public is ready to either accept or ignore Rand Paul's foreign policy, many pro-Israel Republicans may not be.
The Clinton factor
Given American skepticism over intervention, Rand Paul may have hoped that he could focus any future foreign policy debates around a discussion of civil liberties, something Paul has given many a speech on recently with the increased attention on the Obama administration's use of drones and the National Security Agency's collection of metadata. However, recent global events may make foreign policy a more important part of the 2016 presidential race than many may have anticipated, given the still sluggish economy and renewed focus on equality and opportunity in America. Gerald F. Seib wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal today declaring "Crises in Ukraine and Elsewhere Likely to Play a Role in the 2016 Presidential Election."
On the other side of the ideological spectrum waits Hillary Clinton. If she decides to run in 2016 and successfully wins the Democratic presidential nomination, it means that the eventual Republican nominee will have to face off with and debate a former secretary of state, one who has become very well acquainted with many of the crises that are deemed likely to play a role in the 2016 presidential election.
If foreign policy took on such an outsized role in the race and Ron Paul managed to succeed, it would signal a monumental shift in the Republican Party. But given the Republican Party's reluctance to evolve much toward isolationism, it seems safer to assume his chances would recede the bigger an issue foreign policy becomes.
"Democrats seek Obama administration’s help with agency decisions to boost reelection bids" — Paul Kane, The Washington Post
"Crossing Chris Christie" — Ryan Lizza, The New Yorker