For an unconventional but likely presidential contender such as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, timing is everything.
The debate in Congress over President Obama’s call for a military strike against Syria comes at an ideal moment for the noninterventionist expected to seek the Republican nomination in 2016. The vote on Syria will put Paul right where he wants to be: at odds with a Democratic administration profoundly mistrusted by the conservatives and tea-party activists who dominate GOP primaries. Paul’s worldview is also in line with polling that shows voters disgusted by years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I don’t think getting involved has a national security interest for us in Syria,” Paul said Wednesday, echoing the sentiment in a new Washington Post/ABC News poll that found six in 10 Americans oppose missile strikes against the Syrian government for using chemical weapons against its own people.
Not so long ago, Paul would have looked out of step with his party and public opinion, especially when compared with Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a potential 2016 rival from the GOP’s long-dominant hawkish wing. But the foreign policy script is starting to flip, putting Rubio in the awkward position of reconciling his leanings toward U.S. involvement overseas with an increasingly war-weary electorate and his antipathy toward the Democratic president.
The result: Rubio is still on the fence, while Paul is clear about which side he’s on.
“At this moment in time, the senator with the wind at his back politically speaking is Rand Paul, not Marco Rubio, and I say that with some reluctance,” said Peter Wehner, an adviser to 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney who worked in the last three Republican administrations. “Though I have doubts about whether Paul’s argument [on Syria] will prevail in the end, his timing is really smart.”
That certainly wasn’t the case when his father, then-Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, took a stand against military action in the fall of 2002. He was among only seven Republicans in Congress who opposed going to war in Iraq. Paul’s vote defied a national drumbeat toward war after the Sept. 11 attacks, not to mention a president from his own party, George W. Bush. Paul developed a cult following in two bids for president but never was considered a mainstream candidate.
In contrast, his like-minded son is taken more seriously by a Republican establishment that sees the increased popular appeal of noninterventionism and is looking for a strong foil to a White House gone Democratic. Wehner added, “Paul is a rising force in the party at a time when Republicans are having something of an identity crisis on national security.”
Rubio, too, seems unsure of where he stands. At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Wednesday, Rubio said Syria is “clearly tied” to U.S. national security but that he is “very skeptical” that a limited military strike will prevent chemical-weapon attacks.
Such caution contradicts his biography, 2010 campaign, and track record in Congress. Rubio defines himself as “the son of Cuban exiles” who escaped the repressive regime of Fidel Castro. He campaigned on a platform of American exceptionalism and a view of the U.S. as a champion of human rights around the globe. Dating back to 2011, he’s been allied with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham—two of the leading GOP spokesmen for military action in Syria—in calling for heavier sanctions against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and for arming the Syrian rebels.
Cracks in Rubio’s hawkish foundation started to show during the debate earlier this year over foreign aid to Egypt. Paul has fervently opposed sending aid, while Rubio has sought a middle ground in which the aid would continue under more limited circumstances because the U.S. can’t “retreat” from its role on the world stage.
But with the stakes in Syria much higher, Rubio is struggling to juxtapose his proclivity toward foreign intervention with criticism of the president’s handling of the crisis. If the timing is good for Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, another potential GOP presidential candidate opposed to military action in Syria, it couldn’t be worse for Rubio, who is weathering a backlash from his own party for backing immigration reforms also favored by Obama. Rubio has balanced that position out with a strident demand that Republicans who oppose the president’s health care law should reject the federal budget.
“Any accommodation, any agreement with the president is a liability in a Republican primary,” said GOP consultant Steve Schmidt, a top adviser to McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “The potential candidates in 2016 like Rubio and Paul will be taking positions on Syria and other issues that will come to define them and expose real fault lines long before the primary debates.”