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Who Will Stand With Rand?

In launching his bid for the White House, Rand Paul is trying to blaze a path between the neocons and the doves.

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), waves to the crowd of supporters during  the kickoff of the  National Stand with Rand tour on April 7, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky. Conservative US Senator Rand Paul announced on April 7 that he is running for his party's nomination for the 2016 presidential race, making him the second major Republican to join the contest.   AFP PHOTO / MICHAEL B. THOMAS        (Photo credit should read Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images)
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), waves to the crowd of supporters during the kickoff of the National Stand with Rand tour on April 7, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky. Conservative US Senator Rand Paul announced on April 7 that he is running for his party's nomination for the 2016 presidential race, making him the second major Republican to join the contest. AFP PHOTO / MICHAEL B. THOMAS (Photo credit should read Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images)

Surrounded by throngs of cheering supporters in Louisville, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky officially announced his bid for the White House on Tuesday, launching a campaign that will test the Republican Party’s appetite for a libertarian worldview.

In a 26-minute speech, Paul proposed a range of domestic policy initiatives that fall squarely into Republican orthodoxy — from tax cuts to balanced budgets to school choice.

But on foreign policy, where the senator has come under withering criticism from the party’s resurgent neoconservative wing, Paul tried to craft a middle path between the oft-maligned idealism of the Barack Obama administration and the reflexive militarism of the George W. Bush administration.

“I see an America strong enough to deter foreign aggression, yet wise enough to avoid unnecessary intervention,” he told the Louisville audience. “We must defend ourselves, but we must never give up who we are as a people. We must never diminish the Bill of Rights as we fight this long war against evil.”

For the last several months, Paul has fended off a series of attacks from Republican hawks who want to label him an “isolationist” for his skepticism of government surveillance, outspoken criticism of recent American military interventions and interest in seeking a diplomatic resolution on Iran’s nuclear program.

On Tuesday, a shadowy Republican nonprofit launched a $1 million ad campaign against the senator, calling him “wrong and dangerous.”

“Tell him to stop siding with Obama because even one Iranian bomb would be a disaster,” declared a new ad by the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America, a group led by a former John McCain operative.

The real trick for Paul will be growing his support among hawkish Republicans without turning off the libertarian base he has inherited from his father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. So far, it doesn’t appear to be working well: A recent analysis by the data journalism site FiveThirtyEight suggests that Paul’s courtship of the GOP establishment has failed to boost his approval ratings among rank-and-file Republicans even while it has alienated libertarians.

“In Paul’s dream world, he’ll satisfy everyone. In the most likely real world, he’ll end up satisfying no one,” wrote FiveThirtyEight analyst Harry Enton.

Sensitive to attacks linking him to Obama’s legacy, Paul went out of his way on Tuesday to criticize the president’s foreign policy, especially Obama’s reluctance to condemn “radical Islam.”

“Until we name the enemy, we can’t win the war,” he said. “The enemy is radical Islam. You can’t get around it.”

Paul’s acrobatics on the interim nuclear deal with Iran offer another illustration of how he is trying to walk a fine line between hawks and doves. In a nod to conservative critics, Paul emphasized his skepticism of the agreement reached by the White House, Tehran and five world powers.

“It concerns me that the Iranians have a different interpretation of the agreement,” he said. “They’re putting out statements that say completely the opposite of what we’re saying.”

But while Paul noted his co-sponsorship of legislation with Republican Sen. Bob Corker that would mandate a congressional review of a final deal — a measure opposed by the White House — he did not commit to voting against the president’s nuclear deal, as every other major Republican presidential candidate has.

He also reprised some of his own past talking points, and threw a bone to deficit hawks inside the party, by criticizing the White House for a bloated domestic budget and a careless foreign aid budget.

“We do not project strength by borrowing money from China to send it to Pakistan,” he said.

From his seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Paul has repeatedly attempted to block foreign aid to anti-American and autocratic regimes, including Egypt and Pakistan. Incidentally, Paul’s speech came just a day after the State Department approved Islamabad’s request to buy nearly $1 billion in American missiles and attack helicopters.

But although Paul has taken a more hawkish tone in recent months, he’s not selling the whole farm. In his effort to thread the needle between libertarians and hawks on Tuesday, the Kentucky ophthalmologist stood firm on some of his core issues, including opposition to unrestrained government surveillance, a position opposed by party leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner and rival candidates Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush.

“Warrantless searches of Americans’ phones and computer records are un-American and a threat to our civil liberties,” he intoned. “I say that your phone records are yours. I say the phone records of law-abiding citizens are none of their damn business.”

In a roundabout way, he even defended the administration’s painstaking efforts to seek a peaceful resolution to the Iran nuclear issue — an applause line that few would consider red meat to a party that has relentlessly criticized the negotiations.

“Everyone needs to realize that negotiations are not inherently bad,” he said. “Our goal always should be and always is peace, not war.”

Though many doubt that he can unite the diverse array of evangelicals, small-business owners, Wall Street executives and libertarians that makeup the Republican Party, Paul insists there is space for foreign policy realists in the GOP tent.

On Tuesday, he appealed to that nebulous mass under the banner of one idea: limited government, at home and overseas.

“At home, conservatives understand that government is the problem, not the solution,” he said near the end of his speech. “Conservatives should not succumb, though, to the notion that a government inept at home will somehow succeed in building nations abroad.”

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John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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