A Dove Can’t Win a Hawk Fight
Why Rand Paul’s sensible foreign policy stands no chance in the GOP's chest-thumping primary.
If you happen to be a Republican politician running for president in 2016, the day you announce your candidacy will most likely be the best day of your campaign. The cheering crowds, the adulation, the bunting and balloons, the hope and heightened expectations — the belief that for just one day, anything is possible. For all but one of these presidential aspirants, it really doesn’t get any better than this.
Then tomorrow comes.
Take, for example, the latest entrant into the GOP presidential sweepstakes — Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. On Tuesday, in Louisville it was all smiles and happiness. I hate to tell you, Rand, it’s all downhill from here.
If Ben Carson has a case of the “crazies,” Rick Perry has a case of the “not so smarts,” and Chris Christie has a case of being Chris Christie, then Rand Paul has a case of the doves. In a party dominated by hawkishly hawkish hawks, Paul is an unwelcome guest whose efforts to advocate for a slightly less insane Republican foreign policy will almost certainly fall on deaf ears among GOP primary voters. Simply put, his foreign-policy views will make it incredibly hard for him to come anywhere close to winning the Republican nomination for president.
On Tuesday in Louisville, with his friends, family, and public supporters cheering him on, Paul tried to say all the right things about national security and America’s place in the world.
He named names: “The enemy is radical Islam. You can’t get around it.”
He name-checked the messiah: “I envision a national defense that promotes, as Reagan put it, peace through strength.”
He attacked the Antichrist: “The difference between President Obama and myself, he seems to think you can negotiate from a position of weakness.”
But no matter how hard he tries, Paul can never get away from his core beliefs or his record.
The fact is, Paul supports negotiating with Iran over the future of its nuclear program (though he’s criticized Obama’s Iran deal). He’s previously spoken of reducing military assistance for Israel, which in today’s GOP is worse than saying, “You know that Obama? He’s not so bad.” He wrote an op-ed last year calling for the end of the U.S. embargo on Cuba (which came after penning another with the thou-doth-protest-too-much title “I Am Not an Isolationist.”) And back in 2011, he told the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that conservatives can agree that “waste can be culled from the military budget.”
These are the words of a politician who thinks the United States needs to have a more restrained foreign policy and a national security mindset that sees the use of military force as a measure of last resort.
These are sensible views. Needless to say, they are not shared by the rank and file of the Republican Party.
For example, according to a recent CBS News poll, 86 percent of Republicans view the Islamic State (IS) as a major threat (that’s 25 points higher than Democrats). Seventy-two percent support sending ground troops to Iraq or Syria (22 points higher than Democrats). Before the Iran nuclear deal, a plurality of Republicans preferred using a strategy of military force over trying to contain Tehran (25 points more than Democrats). Back in August, when asked if America might go too far in getting involved in fighting Islamic militants in Iraq, only 34 percent of Republicans were concerned — as opposed to 57 percent who were worried that the United States wouldn’t go far enough (for Democrats the numbers were reversed, 62 percent to 25 percent). Republicans are more likely to think that the United States should have kept troops in Iraq and was doing the right thing in Afghanistan, and they quite strongly believe that “overwhelming military force” is the best way to deal with terrorism (only 30 percent of Democrats agree).
These numbers alone make it hard enough for someone with Paul’s ideological leanings to win the GOP nomination. But what compounds the challenge for him is that right now, Republicans are taking an even harder line on foreign policy. With the rise of IS, Russian aggression in Ukraine, and Obama making deals with the hated mullahs in Iran, the GOP has, at least temporarily, reclaimed the political advantage on national security.
Republicans are now talking about 2016 being a foreign-policy election and Democrats, as is their wont, are increasingly running scared. A February report from the centrist Democratic group Third Way asserts, “The security gap between Democrats and Republicans has returned, it’s bigger than ever, and it matters in elections.” In response, the group recommends that Democrats acknowledge “threats to America” and reassure voters that they are “totally committed” to protecting them. No doubt Hillary hears this loud and clear. The likely outcome will be both parties trying to sound as hawkish as possible, all the while exaggerating to existential proportions the alleged threats facing the United States.
No matter how far Paul tries to walk back his past apostasy, it seems almost impossible to imagine that he’d succeed. In fact, Paul had barely finished his announcement speech before outside groups were running television ads in primary states labeling Paul “wrong and dangerous” for supporting “Obama’s negotiations with Iran” and mocking him for suggesting that “it’s ridiculous to think” Iran is a “threat to our national security.”
There will be a lot more where this came from: Paul will almost certainly find himself on the defensive on national security — and fending off attacks from conservatives — as long as he remains in the race. At the very least, he can be sure that every one of his opponents will be playing to the hawkishness of the GOP rank and file.
Then there’s one other problem that Paul can’t easily walk away from: his father, who was in attendance in Louisville.
It’s not hard to imagine that many voters will make an association between Rand Paul and Ron Paul; while the former is trying to find a middle ground on national security and at least squawk like a foreign-policy hawk, the latter has never shied away from his uncompromising isolationist views. From Israel and the defense budget to Iraq and the war on terror, Ron Paul is more distant from the views of mainstream Republicans than practically any politician in America. For those GOP primary voters who don’t make the immediate connection, GOP presidential aspirants are likely waiting in anticipation at the opportunity to quiz Rand in the debates as to whether he shares the same beliefs of his father on national security. Put it together and you’ve got a triple whammy of political pain for Paul.
All of this is a long way of saying, “Enjoy your day in the sun, Rand” — it ain’t gonna last.
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