Rand Paul, Lone Among GOP Hawks, Drops Out of Presidential Race
2016 was supposed to be the year to run against intervention. Then ISIS happened.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who banked his presidential run on support from the libertarian-leaning wing of the GOP that's wary of both U.S. military and government intrusions, suspended his campaign Wednesday morning.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who banked his presidential run on support from the libertarian-leaning wing of the GOP that’s wary of both U.S. military and government intrusions, suspended his campaign Wednesday morning.
“Across the country, thousands upon thousands of young people flocked to our message of limited government, privacy, criminal justice reform, and a reasonable foreign policy,” Paul said in a statement. “Brushfires of liberty were ignited, and those will carry on, as will I.”
His exit leaves the Republican field without one of its only counterpoints to beefing up U.S. military spending and deepening its engagement in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State. Though it didn’t secure him sustainable support — he finished a disappointing fifth in Monday night’s Iowa caucus — it at least challenged a hawkish consensus that has made candidates virtually indistinguishable on national security issues from government surveillance to counterterrorism tactics.
The rise of ISIS has brought an unexpected national security focus and muscular bent to the election that knocked Paul off his libertarian message and has caught other contenders, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, who would rather focus on inequality, off-guard.
Headed toward election season, it was Paul who bore the target as his skepticism toward military intervention seemed to align with a broader war-weariness among the American public. When ISIS’s rise in 2014 prompted a rising chorus of more hawkish Republicans pinning the terrorist group’s unexpected emergence on President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, Paul came to his defense. “What’s going on now I don’t blame on President Obama,” he said.
But as ISIS began to eat up large swaths of territory, broadcast gruesome beheadings of American journalists, and committed or inspired terrorist attacks across the globe, public appetite for the use of force was again piqued as a response to a spike in anxiety not seen since 9/11. Paul’s drawling demands that the U.S. bring fiscal accountability to its defense spending, reduce foreign aid and stop engaging in destabilizing regime change became increasingly out of step.
“Rand Paul was on the cover of Time,” perennial hawk Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) reminded after the Paris attacks, as a mark of how far Paul’s brand has fallen.
Rather than drill down, Paul moved to the middle, reversing his position on drones and saying he’d use force if in U.S. national security interest. But it may have cost him among the constituency he’d hoped to draw — the young, grassroots conservative coalition that buoyed his father, longtime Texas Rep. Ron Paul, through several (unsuccessful) presidential runs.
Paul didn’t even make the cut for the main debate stage last month. And though he put up a strong challenge in the last debate against fellow Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, who are expected to be two of the last men standing for the nomination, it wasn’t enough.
Still, not all’s lost for the libertarian — he turns now to his reelection in Kentucky.
Photo Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Molly O’Toole was a reporter at Foreign Policy from 2016-2017.
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