Rand Paul’s War

by Robert Costa
He works the phones and the media to make the case for not intervening in Syria.

It’s 9:15 on Tuesday night and Capitol Hill is quiet as Senator Rand Paul emerges from Fox News’s studio near Union Station. His face is slightly smeared with powder from his appearance minutes earlier on Hannity, and Sergio Gor, a political aide, is trailing him. Paul walks quickly to the street, heading toward his nearby apartment. It’s been a long day for him, starting with a flight from Kentucky and followed by a packed afternoon at the Foreign Relations Committee. He’s eager to get to his place, rest up, and get ready for a busy week of debate.

But then Paul spots a group of his Senate staffers in the shadows, relaxing in the outdoor lounge at Johnny’s Half Shell, a seafood restaurant housed on the first floor of Fox News’s building. They signal him to come over. Paul glances at Gor, smiles, and hops smoothly over the small fence. The bartender looks on disapprovingly. His advisers chuckle; they’re impressed with their boss’s athleticism, and one raises a glass to toast him.

For the next 30 minutes, Paul sits with them, nursing a beer and sharing the latest stories about his opposition to military action in Syria. At first, there’s talk of his testy exchange with Secretary of State John Kerry at a hearing, then whispered updates about Republicans’ growing unease. Paul never says it explicitly, but it’s clear from his upbeat manner how much he relishes this fight. Of course he’s troubled by the prospect of war and he’s realistic about his chances of stopping one, but he’s enthused by how the GOP is shifting away from the foreign policy of the George W. Bush era.

And now, after more than three years of making an often lonely case for less U.S. intervention abroad, this likely 2016 presidential contender finds himself coordinating a brewing conservative rebellion — not only against the Obama administration, but also against his own party’s hawks. He’s huddling daily with conservatives in both the House and Senate and guiding them on how to battle the leadership. He also hasn’t ruled out a filibuster, though he has publicly played down the idea. One Paul confidant tells me the senator is already looking into buying comfier sneakers.

Next week, Paul will meet with the Republican Study Committee, a conservative House caucus, and he’ll host a bicameral breakfast for conservative skeptics of Obama’s Syria proposal. Releasing legislation to counter the leadership’s resolution is another tactic. On Wednesday, he proposed an amendment in the Foreign Relations Committee, specifying how “the president does not have the power” to unilaterally authorize a military attack that “does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” The amendment was tabled on a 14–5 vote, but Paul insiders say it was the first of many such efforts to come.

Paul’s friends say the role of leading this bloc is a natural one for the Republican freshman. They also believe that the Syria question gives him an opportunity to dismantle his critics’ caricature of his libertarian views. His team is eager to cast Paul as an heir to Ronald Reagan, who, they argue, was frequently reluctant to involve the U.S. military in foreign civil wars. “It’s about reclaiming the party from hawks and putting us back in the mode of Reagan,” says a Paul source. “As we do that, we want to help him, so we’re pushing back really hard against the isolationism chatter. That’s not what he’s about; he’s about non-intervention and the national interest.”

Speaking on Laura Ingraham’s radio show on Wednesday, Paul reiterated his point of view, saying he’s not against the responsible use of military force but against actions where clear U.S. interests are not at stake. “Small wars sometimes become big wars,” he said. “I’m not saying we never get involved in the Middle East.”

Behind the scenes, Paul has held weekly meetings with former Reagan and George H. W. Bush advisers, asking them to help him articulate a “realist” foreign policy for a new generation. “I was surprised when he called and wanted to meet, but I met with him and we talked for a few hours about how different crises in the past have been handled by Congress and the president,” says a former Republican official who met with Paul earlier this summer. “It wasn’t what I expected. Clearly he wants to be more than Ron Paul’s son; my impression is that he’s staking out his own ground.”

Another official Paul has sought for counsel is Richard Burt, a former ambassador to Germany and State Department adviser for Reagan. “The senator’s instincts, in terms of defining the national interest, are exactly right,” he says. “He and I have spoken about how Syria doesn’t meet the threshold that Reagan would set for military action. What he’s doing isn’t knee-jerk isolationism but a return to Reagan’s sense of prudence.”

Paul’s play for support also includes a revamped media strategy. Yes, he’s still going on Fox News and conservative talk radio, but his aides say he’s determined to make his case beyond the conservative bubble. Case in point: Meet the Press. After three years of denying interview requests from NBC News, because he was angry over how they covered his 2010 race, Paul finally relented and decided to go on the network’s marquee Sunday program for the first time this past week. “The timing was right for him to make a splash on Meet with Syria, so he pulled the trigger,” says a Paul adviser.

That appearance helped cement his status as the unofficial leader of the opposition. Republicans have noticed, and on Wednesday, several of his colleagues joined him on committee in voting against the resolution to authorize military strikes, from Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who is hardly a member of the Paul wing of the GOP, to Senators John Barrasso (Wyo.), Jim Risch (Idaho), and Ron Johnson (Wis.). Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a fellow Kentuckian who’s currently entangled in a primary war with a tea-party challenger, has been cautious in his remarks.

Moving ahead, Paul’s aides say the senator will spend more of his time working the inside angle against intervention. In the House, he’s working closely with Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Justin Amash of Michigan to lobby Republicans to oppose. In the Senate, he hopes to have Rubio, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Mike Lee of Utah, among others, at his side. On the outside, several tea-party groups and conservative powers, such as Heritage Action, share Paul’s position, but Paul believes his time is best spent working the phones and, when appropriate, speaking with the press. “The outside stuff is organic and not being directed by us,” says the Paul adviser. “We didn’t have to organize it; it’s happening on its own.”

Paul’s staff sees the House vote in July on Amash’s amendment to restrict the National Security Agency’s surveillance capabilities as a precedent for the kind of coalition Paul is trying to build. On that vote, liberal doves joined with Paul-aligned Republicans to nearly pass the legislation. Paul feels that if he and Amash can get that band back together, they have a shot at beating Boehner in the House and then forcing Obama’s hand. Maybe they can even get close to doing something similar in the Senate. It won’t be easy, but this is Paul’s moment, and he’s trying to make the most of it.

— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.

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