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.”