CHARLESTON, South Carolina — Nothing says maverick outsider challenging the Republican establishment like a major national security speech delivered from a stars-and-stripes-draped podium in front of an aircraft carrier.
No, there was no subtlety to the choice of scenery for Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to make his big foreign policy pitch Thursday, the second stop on a five-state tour to kick off his presidential run after announcing his candidacy for 2016 on Tuesday. There were so many American flags flapping in the breeze in front of the USS Yorktown museum ship that the crowd of people faced different directions during the pledge of allegiance.
Paul wants to be seen as presidential material, a candidate serious on national security, and a viable contender for commander-in-chief. He’s already fighting uphill not to be dismissed by his rivals – or Republican primary voters – as merely a “wacko bird” freshman senator who rails against the NSA, Obama’s drone program, and foreign aid. It’s a perception issue for this candidate particularly as national security is expected to become more central to 2016, due to foreign policy anxiety inspired by Iran, the Islamic State, or ISIS, and other conflicts and concerns.
But Paul also wants to maintain his rebel reputation as an alternative to been-there-done-that Republican hawkishness. He’s hoping to continue to harness the grassroots enthusiasm of his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s supporters, but also expand his base by attracting a younger, more diverse generation of voters. Thus he began his announcement of his new candidacy Tuesday with an old line: “We have come to take our country back.”
This is the Rand Paul paradox.
Paul’s prospects for president come down to whether he can he have it both ways: convincing the American voter he is not a contradiction, but that his seemingly divergent views are complements. Not flip-flops, but a principled evolution. Nuance isn’t an easy sell to the American voter, particularly when it comes to national security. Paul already is vulnerable to accusations that his record and message is filled with incoherency and inconsistency – as seen in several muddled media appearances over the last few days.
On Thursday, Paul articulated a foreign policy doctrine as Reagan’s “peace through strength” revamped, using WWII as a reminder of an America reluctant to fight, but ready to fight completely when threatened. “They did not seek war, but were fiercely resolute when called to fight,” Paul said of the Yorktown crew. “They understood that our freedom and prosperity must be defended against those who would attack us. They learned the terrible lesson that war is not a game and should not be used for political advantage. Too many lawmakers in Washington have not learned that lesson.”
Of veterans, he said, “We owe them the wisdom to know when war is necessary and when it’s not necessary.”
It was a theme strikingly reminiscent of President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign to succeed President George W. Bush and end the Iraq War, defining himself as a future commander-in-chief who would be most reluctant to go to war, but ready to do so when necessary.
“As commander-in-chief, the world will know that our objective is peace, but the world should not mistake our desire for peace with passivity, the world should not mistake our reluctance for inaction,” he said. “And if war should prove unavoidable, America will fight with overwhelming force and we will not relent until victory is ours.”
But the paradox reappeared, as Paul delivered one of his biggest red-meat applause lines, a conservative talking point criticizing Obama’s avoidance of the term “radical Islam.” Paul said, “Not only will I name the enemy” – “radical Islam,” which he called a “barbarous aberration” – “I will do everything it takes to defend America from these haters of mankind.”
Paul’s shift from his father’s stauncher libertarianism also tracks public attitudes on issues of U.S. national security and foreign policy, making him potentially a better campaigner than his father.
As the economic recession still reverberated in 2011 and polls registered American war weariness a decade after 9/11, Paul called for defense cuts and ending aid to foreign governments – including (though not targeting) Israel. But he is sensitive to criticisms that he is insufficiently supportive of Tel Aviv. Last month, he reintroduced his “Stand With Israel” bill from last year, which would halt funding to the Palestinian Authority. Paul says he hasn’t changed his broad opposition to foreign assistance, rather believes countries that oppose the U.S. should be cut off before allies. “We shouldn’t be borrowing money from China to give to Pakistan,” he repeated Thursday. “I say not one penny more to these haters of America!”
Paul also has tapped into popular suspicions about the intelligence community, giving a 13-hour filibuster of CIA Director John Brennan’s nomination, forcing others to come to the floor in support, including some of his 2016 rivals. He used NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks about mass surveillance to appeal to a younger, digitally connected crowd. Though he voted against NSA reform this year, arguing it didn’t go far enough, he pledged on Tuesday he would “end unconstitutional surveillance” on his first day in the White House, and reiterated on Thursday his defense of civil liberties.
When the Islamic State pushed into Iraq last summer, Paul blasted Bush-era neoconservatives he dubbed the “let’s-intervene-and-consider-the-consequences-later crowd” and even backed Obama. He also said he liked his chances against “a war hawk like Hillary Clinton,” and he’s put Jeb Bush, predictably, in the same category.
Now, public support for direct U.S. military intervention in the Islamic State fight has increased, roughly eight months into the war, and the GOP has found traction tying a spate of foreign-policy crises to what they say is a weak and indecisive national security strategy from Obama.
Cue Paul’s shift to openness on air strikes against the Islamic State, though he introduced a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, and called Obama’s actions unconstitutional. Cue Iran legislation he says ensures Congress gets to review any nuclear deal to “stay strong” on Iran, even though in the past he has said Iran’s nuclear ambitions were not a threat to the United States. Cue a recent budget amendment to increase defense spending by some $190 billion over the next two years, paid for in part by cutting billions from foreign aid and federal agencies.
Threading the needle on fiscal-defense hawks is unlikely to make him popular with the defense industry, which comes with big money and support in key states. Seemingly every other commercial on the radio in Charleston Thursday was an ad urging machinists from Boeing to vote against unionizing in a few weeks. And already, the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America, an Iran-hawk group, has purchased a $1 million ad buy in the state, as well as in New Hampshire – where Paul travelled Wednesday – and Iowa and Nevada, his next two stops.
Paul’s risky messaging grants him a unique opportunity to take a shot at establishment hawks like South Carolina’s Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who are difficult to differentiate on defense. Paul is making his case that he alone is the smart alternative to failed “nation building” policies – a category into which he calculates he can also conveniently lump Clinton.
As people dismantled Paul’s set in South Carolina on Thursday, a gust knocked over a large “Defeat the Washington Machine, Unleash the American Dream” sign, crushing a temporary picket fence. The metaphor is too hard to resist: In the end, it may simply be too tough a balance.