Over the past 18 months, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has made a habit of showing up places where he's not expected—at UC Berkeley and the National Urban League Conference, co-sponsoring Kirsten Gillibrand's bill on sexual assault in the military, at Larry Ellison's house, in Ferguson. So I wasn't totally surprised to see him pop up on HBO this weekend, chatting it up with Bill Maher about climate change, the drug war, and the Islamic State.
Wearing one of his mock turtlenecks, the Republican senator was friendly, even chummy, with his liberal host, dropping dad jokes about politicians and Maher's misspent youth. It was classic Paul: affable, earnest, occasionally tone-deaf—but nonetheless interesting, the word most often used to describe Paul and his political ambitions. Even on climate change, an issue where he and Maher obviously disagree, the senator was conciliatory, looking for some environmental policy "middle ground" where Democrats and Republicans could agree. And as the interview wound down, and Maher's questions turned to the drug war and foreign policy, Paul won him over.
"I think it's only a good thing for America when I'm not sure whom I'm going to vote for next time," was how Maher signed off.
This, of course, was exactly the reaction Paul was looking for. The Kentucky Tea Party darling has positioned himself as the bridge between Republicans and the world outside the GOP bubble, building his all-but-declared presidential campaign around the idea that his libertarian views can broaden the party's appeal beyond old white men. Now, with that campaign basically underway, Paul's willingness to break with the hawks in his party—and to openly court a Hollywood liberal like Maher—is also an invitation to throw down with his Republican opponents, only intensifies internal party divisions over national security and foreign policy that will likely define the GOP race in 2016.
The groundwork for this battle was laid last month, with Paul's speech to the Center for National Interest, a realist foreign policy think tank founded by Nixon acolytes. In a stuffy hotel ballroom on Central Park South, he laid out his foreign policy doctrine, christened "conservative realism," moonwalking the line between Republican hawkishness and non-interventionism.
"America shouldn't fight wars where the best outcome is stalemate," Paul told the ballroom. "America shouldn't fight wars when there is no plan for victory. America shouldn't fight wars that aren't authorized by the American people, by Congress. America should and will fight wars when the consequences—intended and unintended—are worth the sacrifice. The war on terror is not over, and America cannot disengage from the world."
Unlike his remarks to Maher, the CNI speech was obviously tailored to a Republican audience—in this case, a motley crew of Orthodox Jewish leaders, Nixon-era State Department wonks, and Grover Norquist. But beyond the obligatory praise of Ronald Reagan and equally obligatory jabs at Barack Obama, Paul's message seemed to be a repudiation of the post-9/11 foreign policies that have dragged the US through more than a decade of wars. "Stalemate and perpetual policing seem to be our mission now in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria," he said. "A precondition to the use of force must be a clear end goal. We can't have perpetual war."
The speech didn't go nearly as far as some doves—including some fans of Paul's famously irascible father Ron—would have hoped. And his support for military intervention in Afghanistan, and against the Islamic State, seem particularly inconsistent with his not-fighting-any-wars-that-lack-a-plan-for-victory. But it succeeded in pitting Paul against his likely Republican presidential opponents—most of whom are still banging the drum for Bush-era "Mission Accomplished" jingoism—and also against the drone strikes and selective interventions of Obama and Hillary Clinton, the all-but-guaranteed 2016 Democratic presidential candidate.
The speech was also remarkably well received ("I think I just heard Ronald Reagan speaking," quipped Norquist), elating Paul and his staff and emboldening his nascent campaign to take on the hawks. His camp's argument has always been that while the political establishment continues to buy into the post-9/11 war on terror doctrine, Paul is poised to tap into a growing isolationist streak among voters disillusioned and alienated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
If Paul is looking for a fight, he's going to find one. The neocon wing of the GOP is in the midst of a resurgence thanks to public discontent over Obama's handling of foreign policy. All the new Republican senators elected in 2014 embrace more hawkish positions than Paul, which means that the neocon caucus will have a clear majority when the GOP takes control of the upper chamber next year. "The cavalry is coming over the hill!" South Carolina hawk Lindsey Graham gleefully told Jennifer Rubin, the Washington Post's resident neocon. That leaves Paul as a lone voice of dissent as the Senate grapples with questions like whether to send combat troops in to fight against the Islamic State, whether to keep troops in Afghanistan, and whether to approve a possible nuclear agreement with Iran. Since returning for the lame-duck last week, Paul has already said he will vote against the NSA reform package currently being considered in the Senate, in part because it extends the Patriot Act until 2017.
Paul's positions put him in the center of an internecine battle that will, in all likelihood, define the Republican 2016 presidential race. In recent months, a steady parade of Paul's potential rivals have tried to pick fights over his supposed isolationism, jockeying to position themselves in relation to the libertarian-ish senator's foreign policy views. But Paul has mostly stayed steady, confident that this is a battle he will win. Win or lose, there's no question that he's got the party fighting on his terms.
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