As Jim Antle points out, Rand Paul’s vote against cloture for the Hagel nomination has been roundly criticized by antiwar conservatives, libertarians, and liberal admirers of Ron Paul—not only by Scott McConnell and Daniel Larison here at TAC but also by Justin Raimondo (a longtime Rand critic) and Glenn Greewald (who had been more favorable). The criticisms are entirely justified, but Rand’s vote shouldn’t come as a surprise, and there are a few things that we should all understand going forward.
Since he first won the Kentucky GOP Senate nomination in 2010, Rand Paul has set out to become the Republican’s Republican—not in the sense of being the most loyal party trooper, but in the sense of being its most ideologically committed leader. So when other Republicans propose cutting government, Rand urges deeper cuts. When Marco Rubio gives the party’s official State of the Union rebuttal, Rand gives the Tea Party response. The brand he cultivates is that of the antithesis of the RINO Republican. He takes the party’s core rhetorical concerns—taxes, states’ rights, smaller government—and pushes them farther. Quite probably that reflects what he really believes; it also aligns him with the party’s activist base ahead of the 2016 presidential contest. When he goes up against Rubio, his argument will be, “I’m more Republican than he is.”
But if that were all Senator Paul wanted to do, he would not make a speech at the Heritage Foundation citing George Kennan and calling himself a realist. Talk is cheap—but these weren’t words that fit with his attempt to be the Republican’s Republican. Nor have some of his efforts on civil libertarian issues and the drug war in particular been what you would expect from someone who just wants to be as acceptable as possible to the activist GOP base. One should not make too much of this—but one should not dismiss it, either.
The Hagel vote put Rand’s Republican identity in direct conflict with his secondary brand, and—no surprise—his primary identity won out. Why would a man who has said and done the things Senator Paul has said and done since 2010 break with his party on such a high-profile, virtually party-line vote? He can call himself a realist without jeopardizing what he’s worked to achieve. But a vote for Hagel would bring him serious grief in the 2016 primaries; he’d be handing his opponents something they could use to shred his identity as the Republican’s Republican. So he voted against cloture.
There’s a very important lesson here that opponents of neoconservatism have studiously refused to learn: in politics, the only things you can rely on—underscore “rely”—are money and votes. If you have either of those—if you have Sheldon Adelson or John Hagee–you can modify a Republican politician’s behavior, whatever his personal ideological orientation. There are no votes and no billionaires on the side of noninterventionism, not in a GOP primary. When Ron Paul voters announce that they won’t support his son in 2016, they’re not making a credible threat, because Ron Paul never had enough votes in 2008 or 2012 to get close to the GOP nomination, and there’s plenty of campaign cash to be had elsewhere than from Ron Paul’s small donors. Rand Paul doesn’t need you. He wants you—just as he wants every vote he can get—but he’s not going to choose your single vote over the votes of 200 ill-informed GOP primary voters who believe what Fox News tells them about Chuck Hagel.
Rand Paul deserves plenty of blame for his vote, but what’s far more important than getting mad at him is understanding that Rand is tied to the Republican Party, and the Republican Party itself is inseparable at present from the neoconservative agenda. This fact has caused the Republican Party to lose the last two presidential elections and cost the party control of the Senate in 2006. But even a Republican who realizes that there’s a problem here and wants to change it still has to win primaries in a party whose media organs—the means by which voters know the “good guys” from the “bad guys”—are 100 percent under the thumb of Bill Kristol and company. Why do you think he’s grinning ear-to-ear every time you see him on TV?
The hard question to face is whether there is the slightest hope of reforming the GOP under these conditions or, if not, what practical alternative there might be. I’ve certainly noticed that there’s more than one box on Virginia’s ballots.