The conventional wisdom has spoken. Rand Paul is on the rise.
The Kentucky Senator has won two presidential straw polls in as many weeks. He came out on top in a brand-new CNN/ORC International poll of Republican 2016 hopefuls, and the small detail that his narrow lead fell entirely within the suvey’s sampling error didn’t stop the media from marveling at his early momentum. From HBO to “Morning Joe,” the libertarian darling has the chattering class abuzz with talk of his political promise.
The praise is coming Paul’s way for good reason. Though he has yet to completely kick his awkward delivery to the curb, the Senator’s speaking has improved dramatically since his 2010 election. With every interview and public appearance, he has steadily become a more forceful and articulate spokesman for an important subset of American principles that have received far too little attention in Washington for far too long. Marry this personal progress with the IRS, the NSA, and the other Obama-era scandals seemingly tailor-made for libertarian critique, and his rise to prominence is easy to understand. The Senator has molded himself into an impressive political athlete just as a series of high-profile matches have been held in his home court.
But the plaudits nearly always come with a catch. Whether in syndicated columns or casual conversations, applause for Paul is frequently followed up with the same cautionary suffix: But he needs to prove that he isn’t just his father.
The younger Paul needs to be libertarian enough, in other words, but not too libertarian. We constantly hear that the Senator needs to forge and walk a middle path that must be both distinct enough from typical Republicanism to be refreshing and mainstream enough to disassociate Paul’s brand from the paranoid, parochial, paleoconservative vibe that left most ordinary Americans unable to envision his father in the White House.
This narrative is especially prominent when the conversation turns to foreign affairs. Many on the right find much to like in libertarians’ back-to-basics vision for domestic policy, but the premise that America’s actions overseas do more harm than good still clashes badly with the assertive patriotism that has helped define the GOP for more than half a century. Conservatives will hear out differing perspectives on the size and scope of social programs, but anyone who even appears to suggest that foreign anti-Americanism may be the justifiable fruit of our own meddlesome ways is instantly extinguished as an option in the minds of many voters.
Now, this pitfall can certainly be avoided. After all, our current President was himself an ideologically pure Senator who struck many as too dovish. He surmounted this obstacles by very deliberately pouncing on opportunities to burnish his credentials, strategically feinting right on specific global issues to reassure the average voter that he could be a well-informed and tough leader too. In purely political terms, if Paul is to cement his status as a major player and conclusively separate himself from the fringe, he must find opportunities to repeat Obama’s feat.
That means seizing opportunities to appear resolute but not reckless. Opportunities to display tenacity and remind Republican voters that there many ways to tackle a crisis overseas that fall in between the equally unpopular poles of embarrassing inaction and full-bore intervention. Opportunities that allow the Senator to ding a Democratic President for looking weak while keeping his voice clearly distinct from his party’s more typical hawks.
Opportunities exactly like the recent chaos in Ukraine.
Yes, the evolving chess match between the United States and Russia offered Paul a massive opening. The crisis oozes with precisely the kind of old-school power politics that Paul vocally argues America has come to neglect. Still war-weary but also anxious of taking a geopolitical backseat, the American people seem to recognize that neither the “Bush model” nor the “Obama model, as they see them, are really what this situation calls for. In other words, the nation craves a Ukraine response aligned with the very via media that Paul has worked for years to elaborate: assertive but not arrogant, both clear-eyed and steel-spined.
The Senator has spent years charging leaders on both sides with inattention to nuance and pining for the days when hard-nosed realists took a fresh, analytical, and detail-driven look at situations as they arose. In early 2013, Paul opened a foreign policy speech by declaring that “foreign policy is uniquely an arena where we should base decisions on the landscape of the world as it is [and] not as we wish it to be…I am a realist, not a neoconservative, nor an isolationist.”
In this area, ironically enough, the libertarian hero casts himself as a technocrat. Paul lauds pragmatism, disdains blind principle, and portrays himself as the man who will set aside preconceptions and dive straight into the details of foreign policy. And in a geopolitical crisis that so obviously demands an American response but where a dramatic show of force is equally obviously off the table, sober technocracy is what we need.
So the structure of this crisis teed up an ideal opportunity for Paul to score real points. But as commentators across the political spectrum have demonstrated, that chance vanished when the Senator began to speak. Blogging at New York Magazine and National Review respectively, Jon Chait and Patrick Brennan offer two of the most thorough excoriations of Paul’s half-baked proposals. One of the Senator’s action items had already been executed before his articles were published, for example; others would have been directly counterproductive and actively harmed American interests.
I won’t pretend to add value by replicating other commentators’ takedowns. I will simply observe that zero prominent voices of any ideological persuasion have come forward to argue that Paul nailed the specifics on this.
And on a broader level, Paul’s TIME op-ed is problematic because it commits the very same sin for which he lambastes other politicians: reasoning down from one’s own a priori commitments instead of letting the specifics of a situation speak for themselves. The Senator rapidly pivots away from a Ukraine-specific conversation into his signature talking points, the moral and financial limits that should constrain government action. These are doubtless important considerations, but acknowledging these limits is only the beginning of an intelligent conversation about foreign policy, not its conclusion.
When the Russian rubber hit the road, Paul seems to have discovered that talking about intelligently using all the facets of American power is easier than actually proposing a plan of action. Faced with complicated facts, he retreated just as quickly as everyone he criticizes into the comfort zone of his own philosophical priors.
It is thanks to those very priors that Rand Paul will have a tougher time passing the “Commander-in-Chief test” than any other Republican who shares his aspirations. Where domestic policy is concerned, the President merely supervises and constrains a process that Congress primarily drives, so it is very conceivable that GOP voters would see a libertarian chief executive as a useful check on the legislature. But in foreign affairs, it is the White House from which energy, imagination, and action itself must flow.
The man (or woman) who ultimately commands America’s global presence cannot simply be an expert in what our country cannot and should not do. He cannot merely be a specialist in constraints, an enforcer of limitations, an expert at cordoning off the negative space into which government ought not tread. He or she must also be comfortable filling that void—setting goals, developing plans, implementing substantive policies, and reasoning through complicated strategies in times of acute crisis.
On the home front, a President whose specialty is operating the brakes might be a welcome development. But on the world stage, the job also requires knowing when and how to step on the gas, to fill the void with a vision and put it into practice.
That is a role that Americans will be naturally skeptical a libertarian can fill, and Paul’s recent foibles highlight exactly why. The next time the Senator is asked to weigh in on world affairs, his supporters can only hope he begins to take his own advice.