The Rand Paul Moment

January 31, 2014 Topic: Domestic PoliticsGrand StrategySecurity Region: United States Blog Brand: The Buzz

The Rand Paul Moment

The rest of the GOP is ceding the foreign-policy field to the Kentucky senator.

At Foreign Affairs, Colin Dueck discusses Rand Paul and his role in the foreign-policy debate within the Republican Party and the country at large. Responding to Peter Beinart and others who have argued that Paul is now the frontrunner for the 2016 GOP presidential primary, Dueck contends that Paul’s views on international affairs in fact place him out of step with his party’s base and make him unlikely to be the Republican nominee. Marshaling a range of polling data, Dueck says the GOP base is instinctively more militarist that Paul on issues such as defense spending, drone strikes and how to deal with Iran, and thus likely to be turned off by Paul’s positions on those issues.

Does this argument hold up? Let’s get a few obvious caveats out of the way: Barring some international event like a major crisis or war, most Americans don’t usually vote on the basis of foreign policy. And with the 2016 election still nearly three years away, predictions about how it will play out are still largely a mug’s game. (Dueck admits as much on both points.)

But the larger point that Dueck doesn’t address is that there is one big reason why Paul has gained as much positive attention as he has: the fact that when it comes to foreign policy, he is basically competing in an open field. The George W. Bush first-term approach to the world—the aggressive use of military force to promote American values overseas—is still deeply unpopular with the public. But among leading national Republicans, Paul is the only one to be presenting a real alternative to it that is even close to fully fleshed out. The Senate GOP’s other loudest voices on foreign policy, Lindsey Graham and John McCain, continue to see threats to American interests everywhere and support constant American action—usually military action—to respond to those threats. As Graham put it on Tuesday night, he believes that “the world is literally about to blow up” and that only America can stop it from doing so.

Meanwhile, Marco Rubio has also recently attempted to outline his own foreign-policy agenda in a series of speeches. Rubio rejects labels like “hawks” and “doves,” and tries to frame his approach as a sensible, middle-ground one. But as Isaac Chotiner observed at the New Republic, his speeches have largely consisted of platitudes. He forswore the hawk label, but he also presented a vision of the world in which America is constantly besieged by threats and compelled to combat them through the use of American power. It was, as Chotiner wrote, “a full-throated defense of hawkishness” that nevertheless said “not a single thing that would commit him to anything substantive were he to win the Republican nomination or become president.”

The result is that among those in the GOP who don’t support the Bush approach, Rand Paul has become the only game in town. There are precious few, if any, other Republicans of national stature and even semi-realistic presidential aspirations who have anything interesting to say about foreign policy at all. And while there are issues on which Paul and the GOP base might differ on foreign policy, there are also ones on which he channels its views quite well—most notably in his vocal opposition to conducting military strikes against Syria last year. Another example comes in the war in Afghanistan, which has grown increasingly unpopular with the public and in which Paul has long favored a faster withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The prospect of Paul as the 2016 GOP nominee has caused a degree of panic among the party’s hawks and neoconservatives. Both John Bolton and Peter King have said that they are considering running, and both have said that they are doing so specifically in response to what they call the rise of “isolationist” voices like Paul’s within the party. But both of these men would have to be considered longer shots than Paul, and their brand of hawkishness is intensely unpopular within the general public as well.

This is less important for what it means for who wins in 2016 than for what it says about where the party is now. Dueck is certainly right that there are issues on which Rand Paul is out of step with the GOP base on foreign policy. But is there another national figure right now that is closer to it and articulating a coherent alternative? Not that I can see.

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