Rand Paul’s Biggest Selling Point

Stuart Reid thinks it’s Paul’s foreign policy:

After [George H.W.] Bush lost his reelection, the realists never could transcend technocracy to achieve real political influence, Sen. Rand Paul Delivers Immigration Address Hispanic Chamber Of Commerce Conferenceand never could offer a message that competed with that of the neoconservatives. Today, Republican realists face the added disadvantage of having a president from the opposite party who, generally speaking, has adopted just the type of limited foreign policy they prescribe. Agreeing with the incumbent Democrat gets you nowhere in the Republican Party.

And so the non-neoconservative Republicans are left with Paul, who, in the words of the conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, “can sometimes sound like a libertarian purist, sometimes like a realist in the Brent Scowcroft mode and sometimes like—well, like a man who was an ophthalmologist in Bowling Green, Ky., just a few short years ago.” Paul’s perceived extremism has prevented the old-school realists from claiming him as their own. As one former official who identifies as a realist told me, “While some (but not all, to say the least) of what Rand Paul says makes sense, he is much too outside the mainstream on all sorts of economic, domestic, and foreign policy questions to be the heir to Bush 41, Ford, Nixon, Eisenhower, etc.”

When anyone describes anyone in Washington “outside the mainstream” without any substantive argument as to why he is wrong, my hackles rise. Those in Washington who were “out of the mainstream” in 2003 opposed the Iraq War. In 1993, “outside the mainstream” folks backed gay marriage. In 1980, “out of the mainstream” Ronald Reagan changed the country.

I have lots of qualms about both Pauls. But I can see how sincere he is in believing America’s interests would be better served by a lighter global footprint than our current one, and I agree with him. He’s too libertarian-purist for my taste or, in my view, the country’s cohesion. But knowing how tough it can be to shift Washington’s vast and connected military industrial complex away from seeking reasons to justify its expansion and expense, his rigidity, though an obvious flaw in a politician, may be necessary to get to a post-hegemonic America. And he has definitely helped change the debate:

The brashest of Paul’s positions—the immediate cutting off of aid, the major downsizing of military bases, the imposition of significant congressional authority—will likely never become U.S. foreign policy. But his effect on the rhetorical landscape could prove more lasting. Paul, George Will said, has “expanded the range of what is discussable.” The challenge he poses to advocates of military intervention is particularly potent, and particularly useful at a time when Washington is debating our intervention in Syria.

Drezner admits that “Paul is taking positions that are forcing more hawkish GOP foreign policy activists to, at a minimum, hone and defend their arguments better than they have in the past.” But he isn’t entirely sold:

[O]ne of the points I was trying to make in my Foreign Affairs essay was that the GOP needed to take the topic seriously as a substantive policy issue — not just as an opportunity to posture for domestic interests.  Based on Reid’s article, it’s not entirely clear to me that Paul is doing that.  Rather, he just seems to be playing to a different base — the Alex Jones-listening, UN-black-helicopter, the-amero-is-coming conspiracy theorists.

As often, Dan separates the Paulite wheat from its large amount of chaff.

(Photo: Getty Images.)