Peter King's Ridiculous Assault On Rand Paul

December 20, 2013 Topic: The Presidency Blog Brand: Jacob Heilbrunn

Peter King's Ridiculous Assault On Rand Paul

The Fort Sumter of the Republican foreign-policy debate.

Ronald Reagan said that the GOP's 11th commandment was, "Thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican." If so, it's an injunction that's being increasingly violated. The Gipper would be astonished to see that Republicans seem to be devoting more energy to attacking each other than the opposition.

Few Republicans are attracting more ire from within the GOP's ranks than Sen. Rand Paul who appears to possess a special ability for getting under the skin of his Republican colleagues. First it was Senator John McCain referring to him and Ted Cruz as "wacko birds." Now Rep. Peter King, a vulgar demagogue who has held McCarthyite hearings on alleged Muslim radicalization in America and is starting a new political action committee called "American Leadership," has joined the fray. He announced on CNN that Paul's statement that top NSA official James Clapper did more damage to national security than Edward Snowden has was nothing less than "disgraceful."

Paul's statement was hyperbolic. But King's assault on Paul is not simply excessive. It is an attempt to silence debate. He declared,

For Sen. Paul to compare that patriot, Gen. Clapper, with someone like Snowden, who is a traitor, who has put American lives at risk, Sen. Paul should be ashamed of himself. It’s an absolute disgrace. It’s a disgrace to me, he disgraced his office and he owes Gen. Clapper an apology immediately.

Actually, he doesn't. Clapper essentially admitted he lied to Congress when he came up with the baroque explanation that he gave the "least untruthful" response to questions in earlier testimony. And King flatters himself when he says it is a disgrace to him personally. 
Anyway, Paul is scarcely alone in his (justified) skepticism about Clapper. Seven House Republicans are asking for a Justice Department investigation into Clapper's remarks. The Hill reports,
GOP Reps. Darrell Issa (Calif.), James Sensenbrenner Jr. (Wis.), Trent Franks (Ariz.), Blake Farenthold (Texas), Trey Gowdy (S.C.), Raúl Labrador (Idaho) and Ted Poe (Texas) said Clapper's `willful lie under oath' fuels distrust in the government and undermines the ability of Congress to do its job. "There are differences of opinion about the propriety of the NSA’s data collection programs," they wrote. `There can be no disagreement, however, on the basic premise that congressional witnesses must answer truthfully.'

They would seem to have a point. Government officials don't get to pick and choose about answering questions veraciously. In fact, they can be prosecuted for lying to Congress. Remember John Poindexter? Scooter Libby? Or have we now entered a new relativistic era in which even basic notions of right and wrong don't apply to officials from the executive branch?

What's really behind King's outrage are his ambitions to run for president and his desire to present the emerging realist wing of the GOP as isolationists. He wants to isolate it. In fact, King is quite explicit about this. He told CNN that the letter about Clapper is redolent of the worst traditions of the late 1930s, when isolationist sentiments percolated in America, preventing Franklin Roosevelt from taking an even firmer stand against the Third Reich. King said,
That comes from the isolationist wing of the party. These are people who are apologizing for America. To me, that is not the Republican tradition. That is not the tradition of Ronald Reagan. It’s the tradition of Charles Lindbergh and the radical, left-wing democrats of the 1960s.
Not exactly. At this point, there are really several Republican traditions, each of which is now vying for dominance. There is the rollback wing of the party, led by John Foster Dulles, which emerged in the 1950s. It fused with neoconservatism in the 1980s, which claimed credit for the collapse of communism. Then that triumphalist spirit led directly to Iraq. In response, a more realist wing has started to reemerge in the GOP that traces its roots to Dwight Eisenhower. No doubt Senator Paul has not offered a full-fledged view of his foreign policy stands. And there is no doubting that his father Ron is indeed an isolationist. But Rand has been careful to distinguish his own stands and views from his father's, explicitly stating that he is not an isolationist. 
Still, in the political debate that looms ahead of the GOP, these niceties, as Peter King's remarks indicate, are hardly likely to be observed. A brouhaha over foreign affairs is becoming an internal matter of dispute inside the GOP. Clapper is unlikely to be prosecuted, but King's remarks could prove to be the Fort Sumter of the Republican foreign policy debate.