Rand Paul’s campaign for the White House ended with a fifth-place finish in Iowa. But Senator Paul has a more important job than running for president, and the conclusion of his presidential bid lets him get back to it. He does, of course, represent the people of Kentucky in the United States Senate. But he represents something else as well: the best foreign-policy traditions of the Republican Party.
However ill-starred his presidential effort, he remains the country’s most widely recognized conservative realist. And before he or anyone like him can become president, Rand Paul will have to help his party reform.
That task will not be easy. But a look at the record shows that it is far from impossible—even as it also illustrates why 2016 was not to be Paul’s year.
Foreign-policy restraint has a deeper history in the Republican Party than its hawkish reputation would suggest. Not for nothing did Bob Dole, as the party’s nominee for vice president in 1976, remark: “If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans—enough to fill the city of Detroit.”
A veteran of World War II himself, Dole was hardly saying that America should not have fought any of those wars. But the collective toll, for the good as well as the bad, was staggering. All of them began under Democrats.
Republicans were not the war party; in fact, they were the party of grand diplomacy in the latter half of the 20th century. Richard Nixon not only opened the way for China’s integration into the world economy, he contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union by cracking apart the communist world. Ronald Reagan, caricatured as a warmonger by the left, ushered the Cold War toward a peaceful resolution by negotiating with Mikhail Gorbachev. Even George H.W. Bush, under whom our long wars in the Middle East began, deserves praise for supporting German reunification while urging caution over the USSR’s disintegration.
If Republicans don’t get much credit for having long been the less interventionist party in practice, it’s not hard to see why. Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan all cultivated images—more than an image, of course, in Ike’s case—as war-winners, not doves or doubters of American power. They presented themselves as practical patriots who had the answers for foreign-policy messes created by the Democrats. Yet neither party was quite what it seemed. The Democrats had more outwardly dovish popular elements, but they always had—and still have—a highly interventionist elite. The Republicans often employed hawkish rhetoric but had a relatively restrained elite. Until recently, that is—as recently as the last Republican president, George W. Bush.
This history put Rand Paul in a difficult position. As an acknowledged “conservative realist” who had spoken out against the Iraq War on the campaign trail and opposed interventions in Libya and Syria as a senator, Paul was more openly dovish than any recent Republican nominee—indeed, arguably more so than Eisenhower, Nixon, or Reagan had been. Add to that the inevitable association of Rand Paul with his father Ron Paul’s strict libertarian noninterventionism, and the Kentucky senator seemed an awkward fit for a party that has usually liked to talk tough, even as it formerly practiced sound diplomacy in office.
Throughout his campaign, and indeed before it, Senator Paul was caught between conflicting impulses among his staff and supporters, and perhaps in his own mind as well. From one side came the argument that by minimizing his foreign-policy differences with other Republicans—by loyally voting with the party against President Obama’s Iran deal, for example—Paul could follow the same path to power that figures like Reagan had trod. The important thing was not to be a spokesman for a less interventionist foreign policy but to become president and actually implement a more realistic foreign policy. According to this line, the failure of Rand Paul’s campaign has to be attributed to his inability to break away from his father’s reputation—and his own. A Republican realist not named “Paul” might one day succeed with this stealthy approach.
But on the other side of the argument, Ron Paul’s campaigns enjoyed much greater success than his son’s—by any measure: fundraising, votes, or influence—by doing just the opposite, accentuating the elder Paul’s sharp differences with the rest of the GOP, especially in foreign policy. Had the younger Paul run like his father, while leveraging his higher media profile and the advantages of being a senator, he would have surpassed Ron Paul’s 2012 successes, which included a third-place finish in Iowa and second place in New Hampshire. Rand Paul would be on his way to the nomination—or at least still in the race heading into the multi-state showdowns in March.
Yet the truth is that Rand Paul could not win either as Ronald Reagan or as Ron Paul. What worked during the Cold War does not work today: Reagan, like Nixon and Eisenhower before him, could run to the right and to the center in foreign policy at one and the same time. Whatever language a Reagan might use on the stump, voters could look to his party’s foreign-policy record and predict that he would not pursue a recklessly interventionist strategy. In primaries and general elections alike, the great Cold War Republicans could strike a balance between words and past deeds. But that’s impossible today: the two Bush presidencies, especially the second, have erased the GOP’s reputation for sensible foreign policy and radicalized the debate within the party.
The post-Cold War ascendance within the conservative movement of neoconservatism and the religious right—both of which favor a values-driven foreign policy—has further changed the way Republicans think about America’s role in the world. The Eisenhower-Nixon-Reagan synthesis of values and pragmatism tilted toward pragmatism, and the party accepted that. Today’s party is left without a synthesis to embrace—for neither the Bush record nor movement conservatism provides one. The Bush record is simply one of failure, while movement conservatism offers only hype and histrionics.
Ron Paul’s campaigns were essential for unveiling the decayed edifice that Republican foreign policy had become. Traditional Republican realists might have thought the Texas congressman went too far in the direction of total noninterventionism, but Ron Paul served realists well by demolishing the pretenses of figures like Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and the entire 2008 and 2012 Republican fields. The elder Paul’s reward was millions in moneybomb contributions from small donors and a strong performance in the first contests four years ago. But that was all—and it’s all a Ron Paul-style campaign is ever likely to achieve. What Ron Paul did was indispensable, but he did not find a way to change foreign policy, only to critique it.
Rand Paul’s task, and that of a new generation of Republican realists, is to go further—to not only reveal the flaws of their party’s foreign policy but to work out a practical alternative. That task comes before winning the White House, and it has to begin on two fronts: one involves devising and articulating policies to strengthen American security through greater restraint—rather than weakening that security by touching off conflagrations around the world—and the other involves building the networks and institutions to support a return to conservative realism. The materials for creating a post-neoconservative center-right are already available. Talented young conservatives—not least among evangelicals—are clear-eyed about the disasters of the Bush years, and they dearly wish to find an alternative. A leader has to provide one—which is what Rand Paul, or someone like him, must do.
Daniel McCarthy is editor of The American Conservative.