Of all the Republican successes in the midterm elections, perhaps none has the potential to be as consequential as the elevation of Rand Paul to the U.S. Senate from Kentucky. Paul was the biggest and most genuine Tea Party triumph in November. As the son and ideological heir of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), he may also give an older, more authentic conservatism its first upper-chamber voice in over 60 years.
Note the cautious “may.” Against determined opposition, Rand Paul proved himself to be a very skilled politician. The neoconservatives and the Republican establishment pulled out all the stops to deny him the GOP nomination. Paul won the primary in a 59-percent “Randslide.” Sensing an opportunity, the Democrats ran hard against Paul’s deviations from the safe Beltway Republican line. Paul took 56 percent of the vote on Election Day.
But the very political skills that helped Paul overcome the ruling class in both parties make some observers fear that he will be co-opted once in Washington, especially when it comes to continuing his father’s tradition of supporting a noninterventionist foreign policy. Consider what might have been the pivotal moment in Rand Paul’s primary campaign. His opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, ran an ad interspersing some of Paul’s comments in support of his father’s presidential candidacy with the elder Paul’s remarks at a GOP debate and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s “chickens have come home to roost” sermon.
The implication was that both Pauls, like Wright, believed the United States had provoked the September 11 terrorist attacks through her foreign policy. But arguing that military interventionism abroad can create anger and resentment that aid the recruitment of anti-American terrorists or motivate attacks is very different from claiming that the attacks were justified or deserved. Mainstream conservatives, who routinely argue that affirmative action hurts minorities and welfare harms the poor, ought to be perfectly capable of understanding that national-security policies intended to keep Americans safe can actually make us less so.
Yet Rand Paul did not allow himself to be baited into an academic discussion of blowback, a theory to which he clearly subscribes. Instead, he countered with a television commercial of his own in which he looked into the camera and said angrily, “Trey Grayson, your shameful TV ad is a lie and it dishonors you.” For good measure, Paul added that his father was a military veteran who lived near the Pentagon during the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The distinction is significant. When Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani had their exchange about blowback and September 11 at a Republican presidential debate, it rallied many passionate opponents of the war to the Texas congressman’s cause. (A win-win situation, it was also a rare victory for Giuliani among the Republican faithful.) But Ron Paul’s perspective on foreign policy also put a ceiling on his support among the GOP primary electorate. It is simply an unwinnable argument in the Republican Party as it is presently constituted.
Rand Paul clearly understood that fact and declined to let Grayson play Rudy Giuliani in front of the Kentucky primary voters. But the episode raised a question in the minds of some of his father’s supporters: When push came to shove on foreign policy, would Paul stand with his mostly antiwar donor base—which he effectively inherited from his father—or with the Republican hawks whose votes he needed to win an election in Kentucky? It was not the only time the question came up. Paul distanced himself from his father on Guantanamo Bay (Rand thinks the prison camp should be closed eventually, but not yet) and trying terrorism suspects before military tribunals (he’s in favor). Paul was fairly quiet about his opposition to the Iraq war and extremely cautious in his comments about Afghanistan and Iran.
Before the primary, Paul met with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and reportedly “told them what they wanted to hear” about U.S. support for Israel. He later declined a meeting with J Street, an organization that bills itself as a more dovish Israel lobby, because his sit-down with AIPAC had gone well. After Rand won the nomination, GQ reported that he met with leading neocons Bill Kristol, Tom Donnelly, and Dan Senor. Senor described Paul as “in absorption mode” and “not cemented in his views.”
That said, Rand Paul did say he would have voted against the Iraq war. And while he supported the initial invasion of Afghanistan, he did not view it as a foregone conclusion that we should remain there a decade later. (These stands are identical to his father’s voting record.) The younger Paul’s statements on Iran and Israel are as noteworthy for what they do not say—they do not commit the United States to military action—as what they do. Not all paleoconservatives would disagree with his stand on military tribunals, though they might share paleolibertarian concerns about their possible application to U.S. citizens.
Since winning the election, Paul has said on national television that he would be willing to cut defense spending. He further said that the military might need to be downsized with the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he continued to press for a review of existing U.S. military commitments, including the vast number of bases overseas in countries that are either of little strategic importance to the United States or perfectly capable of paying for their own defense.
In some respects, Paul could be even better than his father. More likely to call himself a constitutionalist or constitutional conservative than a libertarian, he seems more philosophically conservative. Though the elder Paul is a minarchist, he has been influenced by anarcho-capitalists. The anarcho-capitalists are the libertarians who are most skeptical of the younger Paul. Rand Paul also appears to have a firmer grasp on the importance of the immigration issue. Perhaps most importantly, he is able to communicate his arguments well to typically hostile audiences.
Foreign policy nevertheless remains an area of concern. Unfortunately, Rand Paul will not have the reinforcement of Ken Buck, a Republican skeptic of interventionism who narrowly lost his Senate race in Colorado, or John Hostettler, a strong antiwar conservative who didn’t make it out of the Indiana GOP primary. Peter Schiff also came up short in the Connecticut primary. (Some of the money Schiff raised from Ron Paul Republicans might have been more profitably spent on Hostettler.) All of the pressure within the Republican caucus—and all of the political incentives for an ambitious freshman GOP senator—will come from the hawkish side.
Even so, Rand Paul’s election is a tremendous opportunity for those who want to see a different kind of conservatism in Washington. There is considerable truth to the cliché that personnel is policy. When a Republican looks to hire people who will advise him on foreign policy, realists and noninterventionists need not apply. Thus, as Republican politicians climb the ladder, the pool of qualified foreign-policy advisors is overwhelmingly neoconservative. The principal disagreement within this camp is whether to topple foreign governments and leave or stay around to build democracies afterward, followed by whether it is best to invade Iran and Syria versus Iraq and Afghanistan.
It matters when a Republican president who talks about a “humble foreign policy” and exit strategies on the campaign trail comes to the White House and the only advice available to him comes from reflexive hawks. Neocon-lite advisors like Condoleezza Rice were the voices of realism and restraint in the Bush administration. Having a Republican senator who is open to other influences and arguments, and whose hiring choices might bring a different perspective to the GOP talent pool, is therefore significant. Even if Paul turned out to be little better than a Tom Coburn with paleoconservative staffers, that might still be worthwhile.
Moreover, as a U.S. senator Paul will be more difficult to marginalize than his father and his small band of allies in the House. If Rand Paul plays an important role in promoting limited government in domestic policy, he could have a positive influence in foreign-policy matters on fellow conservatives like Coburn and Jim DeMint. This is especially true as long as Barack Obama remains in the White House. Many a Republican who was bellicose under Bush passionately opposed Bill Clinton’s war in Kosovo.
Robert Taft wasn’t the most consistent Old Right noninterventionist in Congress, but he was the most influential one. The best hope for Rand Paul is that, when the next march to war begins, there will be a Republican voice with credibility among grassroots conservatives—someone who had been endorsed by James Dobson and Sarah Palin—speaking out against it. With apologies to the indispensable Ron Paul, neither the country nor the GOP has had a voice with such standing among the conservative faithful since Pat Buchanan’s last Republican presidential campaign.
In a postelection interview, Trey Grayson, of all people, may have put it best. “My hope is that when he gets up there, the Rand Paul who was often very bold with ideas even if I didn’t agree with him . . . that Rand Paul will be the Rand Paul that goes to Washington,” Grayson said. A lot of non-neocon conservatives hope so, too.