Matthew Feeney wonders if Rand Paul’s foreign policy views will be ignored by an indifferent public:
A lot could change before the 2016 presidential campaigns begin in earnest. However, assuming there is no major shift in American opinion before Paul’s widely expected White House bid begins, it unfortunately looks like Paul’s positions on foreign policy, which ought to be taken seriously given the current state of American foreign affairs, will be mostly overlooked by an American public that continues to be largely indifferent about foreign affairs.
Foreign policy usually doesn’t interest most voters, and it’s true that the public’s interest in foreign policy issues has dwindled to almost nothing in the last few years. Compared to the 2004 and 2008 elections, it was a smaller part of the presidential campaigns. It didn’t play a large role in the 2012 election overall, and barring some major event it will likely not be a major factor in the next presidential election. That said, I’m not sure that it follows that Paul’s views will be overlooked by the voters. Paul is better positioned than any other likely 2016 candidate to talk about foreign policy issues in a way that matches the public’s wariness of new entanglements and conflicts. He is also the only likely candidate with a record of opposing military interventions from the start. That not only distinguishes Paul from the rest, but it offers voters something that many are likely to find a refreshing change from the endless agitation for global “leadership” that they usually encounter. Normally, no politician can run and win on a platform defined mainly by foreign policy views, but when a politician holds views that line up with public opinion they will still get the attention of quite a few voters. Because hawks in both parties are hostile to what Paul represents, there will also probably be disproportionate attention paid to Paul’s foreign policy views by critics, which will make more voters aware of them and could have the unintended effect of driving some voters in Paul’s direction.
Foreign policy was a low priority for almost all voters in 2012, and it will presumably be so again in the future, but we shouldn’t forget how intense and vocal public opposition to attacking Syria was just a few months ago. American voters are largely indifferent to remote events overseas, but we have seen very recently that they can be very engaged and attentive when the U.S. is on the verge of entering a new conflict. Indifference to foreign events is very different from having no interest in foreign policy when it directly concerns the U.S. The intensity of opposition to an attack on Syria may be explained in part by the public’s fatigue with being told that they are supposed to pay a great deal of attention to foreign conflicts, which most are normally not inclined to do. The candidate that recognizes and sympathizes with that attitude is much more likely to receive a hearing on foreign policy than the ones that keep prattling on about how “indispensable” America is.