GOP Hawks Gear Up for War on Rand Paul

Wary at first, neoconservatives are stepping up the pressure on the Kentucky senator.

The long knives are out for Rand Paul. The period in which the most hawkish Republicans eyed the junior senator from Kentucky warily is over.

As one GOP bundler told Time, “we’ll be ready to take Paul down.” The money men may not have started yet, but their print-and-pixels auxiliary has already mobilized against him.

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin warns of an interview that will “haunt” Paul, whom she decried as “far, far out of the mainstream.” Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal decried the senator’s “bark-at-the-moon lunacy about Halliburton” and suggested his nomination would deliver Republicans “another humbling landslide defeat.”

Paul’s critics definitely smell blood in the water with his 2009 comments about Dick Cheney and Halliburton. They’ve already been used not just to link him to his father, but to 9/11 truthers.

There has also been a concerted effort to isolate and marginalize Paul within the party on Iran.

At first, many neoconservatives and others who disliked Ron Paul on foreign policy and distrusted his son gave him a respectful hearing. The senator’s office couldn’t have been too unhappy with Matthew Continetti’s Weekly Standard profile, even if it asked how much like his father Rand really is.

Rubin has been zinged for the frequency of her criticism of Paul. But the Post blogger was a prominent part of the media outreach surrounding Paul’s high-profile trip to Israel. When it was reported that Paul had huddled with Bill Kristol and other prominent national-security hawks, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones asked if Paul was a “neocon in libertarian clothing.”

Those overtures made sense at the time. Paul was—and is—popular with the Republican base. He is a leader of the Tea Party movement. And he seemed considerably more pragmatic than his father. So why not wait and see whether he would concern himself primarily with taxes and spending while posing little threat on foreign policy?

But that’s not how things have turned out. Paul rallied his party (and by some measures, the country) against the Obama administration’s drone policy. Kristol wasn’t amused. He opposed the president on intervening militarily in both Libya and Syria. He has sued the president over federal metadata collection practices.

Yet his standing with grassroots conservatives hasn’t diminished. Paul gets standing ovations at the Conservative Political Action Conference—the nation’s largest gathering of conservative political activists—denouncing warrantless surveillance. He’s in the top tier of most state and national polls of Republican presidential primary voters.

Chris Christie has been tarnished by scandal, though not irrevocably so. Jeb Bush, who may not even run, hasn’t campaigned since 2002 and appears to almost luxuriate in being out of step with conservative activists. Marco Rubio has been hurt by the Gang of Eight immigration gambit. John Bolton and Peter King are as likely to win the GOP nomination as Dennis Kucinich is to beat Hillary.

The claim that Paul is so wildly out of the mainstream is more often asserted than proved. A cursory glance at the poll numbers on the foreign-policy issues animating his Republican detractors doesn’t provide much evidence.

Very few Americans, including Republicans, wanted to get involved militarily in Syria. The longer the administration talked about airstrikes, the more opposition surged. Fewer than one in five Republicans wants either American airstrikes or boots on the ground to resolve the crisis in Ukraine. One poll found only 5 percent of the country wants unilateral U.S. military action there.

The anti-Paul jeremiads also ignore how measured his foreign-policy critique has generally been. He has condemned Vladimir Putin and supported punitive measures against Russia. He has voted for sanctions on Iran. The red line he has generally drawn is preventive war.

It might not be wise to muse openly about containment of a nuclear Iran while negotiations are ongoing. But he is right that it is far from clear that a preventive war to stop Pakistan from acquiring nuclear weapons might not have yielded a better outcome than the dangerous, unsettling status quo.

What the Republicans against Rand hope to do is downplay their support, or at least high tolerance, for military action and keep it a contest of rhetorical toughness. Challenge Paul to keep up with his opponents in “We win, they lose” bravado and, in Rubin’s words, “de-Reaganize” the Tea Party lawmaker.

Then when a more hawkish Republican gets the nomination and, they hope fervently, wins the election public opinion—at least within the GOP—will shift.

With a few hundred million in donations to anti-Paul super PAC, perhaps Sheldon Adelson could make those dreams come true. But it’s worth noting that Pat Buchanan’s opposition to the Persian Gulf War was a far less popular position among Republicans than any foreign-policy stand Paul has taken, and Buchanan still was the leading conservative in the 1996 primaries.

Paul is currently polling closer to the front of the pack than Buchanan ever did, and neither Christie nor Bush currently looks like Bob Dole.

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.