Russia Today and Russia's permanent mission to NATO no doubt couldn't believe their luck. As the United States and its allies increased criticism of Russia's links to the separatists that their evidence showed shot down Malaysia Airlines flight 17, here was a still-popular former member of Congress willing to say that his government was moving too fast, engaging in propaganda to impugn Russia.
That elected official was former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), who criticized the government's response over the weekend. "While western media outlets rush to repeat government propaganda" on the Malaysia Airlines crash, he wrote Sunday, "there are a few things they will not report." (Among those things that the media isn't reporting: that the U.S. is supporting Ukraine in the fight, that separatists couldn't operate the missile battery without training, and that separatists had recently inflicted heavy losses on Ukraine.) Russia Today, picking up an interview Paul gave to the conservative site Newsmax on Friday, summarized his thesis: "[F]ormer Texas congressman Ron Paul warned against jumping to conclusions over the culprits." God forbid we rush to repeat government propaganda.
There's not really anything new about this. Ron Paul's residency at the intersection of isolationism and government mistrust is part of what endeared him to supporters during his presidential bids in 2008 and 2012. But it remains to be seen what happens in 2016, when his son Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) makes his (all-but-certain) play for the presidency. What happens when a Paul who actually has a chance to win decides to run?
Since Rand's designs on the White House became apparent (probably a few sweeps of the hour hand after he was sworn in to his current position), the question has become: Is Ron Paul and his base of support -- heavily comprised of young libertarian men who take a particularly skeptical attitude toward government -- a benefit or a hindrance? Can Rand Paul win over both Redditors and Republicans? And: Does he need to?
Rand is today Kentucky's junior senator largely thanks to his father. Not entirely, of course; Rand is in many ways a more talented politician than Ron, and one better able to navigate between what one believes and what one should say out loud. But without the last name and the financial support of people who backed Ron Paul for president in 2008, Rand Paul's ascent to the U.S. Senate in the 2010 election would perhaps have been insurmountably steep.
Of late, Rand has been deliberate about distancing himself from his father, happy to know that Ron's out on some political ice floe somewhere. Rand recently yanked a book of his father's from a "student reading list" that was listed on his Senate Web site, apparently in part thanks to comments that could be perceived as anti-Israel. After an event in Berkeley in March, Rand told the Daily Caller that he has "pretty much quit answering" questions about Ron Paul's politics. "I’ve been in the Senate three years, and I have created a record of myself," Paul said, drawing an analogy between himself and George W. Bush, who was allowed to run as his own candidate in 2000.
It's an interesting analogy, but not a great one. One might also analogize the two Pauls with the relationship between Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and his father, Rafael. Rafael Cruz earned a listicle from the Daily Beast last year called "The Six Craziest Quotes From Ted Cruz’s Father." (For example: "We need to send Barack Obama back to Chicago. I’d like to send him back to Kenya, back to Indonesia," and his saying that gay marriage is a Socialist plot to destroy "loyalty to the family.") But Ted Cruz didn't win because people knew and loved Rafael Cruz, just as people didn't vote for George W. Bush despite being concerned about H. W. Bush's more exotic policy positions. Bush is a legacy candidate; Cruz is the son of someone comfortable on the political fringe. Paul is both.
Ron's thoughts on Ukraine come at what must be a particularly annoying time for Rand. The arm of the Republican establishment led by former vice president Dick Cheney and the people-once-known-as-neocons has leveled its sights on Paul, with Cheney and his daughter, Liz, creating a group to rebut the strain of isolationism/non-interventionism (the Pauls' preferred adjective) that's in Paul's genes. At an event hosted by Politico last week, Liz Cheney was explicit, saying that she had "big concerns" about Rand Paul's foreign policy beliefs. Even Texas Gov. Rick Perry, another likely 2016er, tried scoring some points off of Paul, writing in the Post that Paul's attitudes on intervention in Iraq were "disheartening." (This kicked off a bit of a feud between the two.) Paul recognizes this is an Achilles' heel, and he has been deliberate about strengthening his foreign policy credentials.
And he's gotten to be adept at re-framing his father's positions. Rand Paul's foreign policy attitudes, like many of his attitudes toward government, are variations on his father's theme, which lets him gently shift how he talks about them. He's not an extremist on fighting government spending, Rand told David Gregory in January, it's the people who want to borrow a trillion dollars to spend who are the extremists. Paul will also benefit from the Republican establishment having grown more skeptical of the government even since his father's 2012 bid, thanks to a gentleman named Edward Snowden. This makes it easier for Rand Paul to suggest that his father is simply misunderstood.
That's happening, though, in a vacuum -- a time period when 2016 is still glimmer on the horizon. As the race heats up, Rand will not be able to ignore Ron Paul's lesser-traveled foreign policy roads, and it will be harder for him to deflect questions about it. It will also be harder for him to distance himself from his father at the moment that he needs his father's base -- which has never offered many qualms about Paul's more exotic positions -- the most. Many Ron Paul voters in 2008 were energized for the first time, and probably would have skipped the election had he not been on the ballot. Rand will want to do the same thing with young voters this time around, while holding on to his father's base (who have now voted two elections in a row), and while appealing to mainstream Republicans in Iowa and Nevada and South Carolina.
Can he do it? We'll see. He has one big advantage, that we mentioned earlier: He's a much better politician than his father.