Daniel Larison links to a Matt Feeney piece asking whether, in the event Rand Paul runs for President, Americans will even notice that he has distinctly outside-the-Washington-consensus views on the subject of foreign policy. It’s an interesting question, but the real question is which Americans we’re talking about – that is to say, are we talking about the primaries, or the general election?
In a primary contest, Rand Paul would likely have an uphill struggle to win establishment support – which is to say, an uphill shot at the nomination in general. In addition, he may have to fight to lock down the support of organized Christian conservative groups, assuming they have a champion in the race (such as Mike Huckabee). Of course, he also has advantages in his corner. To win the nomination, he’ll first of all need the luck not to face an establishment unified behind another candidate. Assuming he’s lucky that way (which is quite plausible), he’ll then need to thread the needle of simultaneously distinguishing himself from the pack and reassuring the establishment that he is an acceptable nominee.
Foreign policy could be useful for the first. There is no way, no matter what he says, that Rand Paul is going to get the support of the neoconservative faction. That’s doubly or trebly true because Hillary Clinton is overwhelmingly likely to be the Democratic nominee; it is hard to imagine a more comfortable Democrat than Clinton for a “hard Wilsonian” hawk. The core establishment concern about Paul, apart from electability (which is a big concern), is whether he’s serious about the whole “end the Fed” stuff – whether he will take reckless, ideologically-driven stances on core economic matters that panic the market. To reassure the establishment, Paul needs to signal that he’s not going to doing anything crazy on that score.
He should be able to get away with doing that because his primary opponents will probably be unable to attack him as crazy on economic or budgetary matters because too much of the Tea Party base agrees with Paul. Instead, they are likely to attack him, as they have attacked his father in the past, on his foreign policy views. Paul’s response will undoubtedly be a mixture of defense of principle and pragmatic violation of it – but the contrast in foreign policy will be made by others. He can’t avoid it, and so he might as well embrace it and make it a selling point. If he succeeds, that will be one part of the measure of his success.
But in the general election, the situation will be completely different. Hillary Clinton has almost no incentive to bring up foreign policy, except to contrast her considerable experience with Paul’s greenness. She won’t run on the need to confront evil in Syria, or Ukraine, or wherever; she’ll run on competence, not ideology. Her overwhelming incentive is going to be to focus on Paul’s economic and budgetary views, and his leadership role in some of the most ignominious moments of the Congressional GOP’s budgetary hostage-taking. (That, and play identity politics.) That is the contrast she is going to draw, and Paul is going to have to own it.
And if he tries to draw other entirely viable contrasts – on civil liberties, or on foreign policy; Paul v. Clinton would possibly be the biggest “choice not an echo” contest since Goldwater v. Johnson – he runs into the problem that in all these areas he’s running against the GOP brand. Paul’s complaints about violations of civil liberties or abuse of Presidential prerogative are mostly complaints about ways that the Obama Administration entrenched or extended Bush-era precedents. His complaints about foreign wars are mostly complaints about wars started during the last Republican Administration. I think the message, “vote Republican – now under new management that believes the exact opposite of what the old management believed,” is a very, very hard one to get across.
Then there are events. If negotiations with Iran prove successful, Clinton will take credit and Paul will have little to say – and much less incentive to bring up foreign policy at all. If they fail, and we wind up at war, Paul will be in the unenviable position of either saying that he would have handled negotiations better than the Obama Administration (a weak argument), or that even after negotiations fail we should not go to war (a stronger argument but an extremely risky one), or supporting war (thereby rendering null any attempt to draw a serious foreign policy contrast). If they fail, and we don’t wind up at war, Paul will already have run a heck of a gauntlet in the GOP primaries on the subject, with every other candidate blasting the Administration for its pusillanimity and Paul, by default, at least semi-defending it. That history would not help him draw a contrast with Clinton on foreign policy in the general election.
If Paul wins the nomination (a long shot, but not impossible), the general election will turn on economic issues. Paul will run against the Obama Administration record. Clinton will run against Paul’s, and his party’s, extremely unpopular economic views. And the result will probably turn, more than anything, on how well or badly the recovery is doing in 2016.
That having been said, after the election foreign policy will start to matter. If Clinton wins, Paul’s ideological opponents on foreign policy will certainly try to spin his loss as a decisive referendum on anti-interventionism. And if Paul wins, then he’ll have the opportunity to actually implement his foreign policy views, and we’ll finally learn just how different from the consensus they really are.