I wrote a column last year on the Rand Paul moment, on how events in the midst of the NSA controversy and Paul’s canny capitalizing on them were making him a real force in 2016 Republican presidential politics. He’s obviously still such a force, but events haven’t been so favorable to him lately. We’ve been starkly reminded of how dangerous the world is and how important American leadership is over the last few months. Now, on two very important questions, Paul has had to reverse field after initially, we can assume, going with his gut. First, he counseled against “tweaking” Vladimir Putin and sounded like we should give him running room in Ukraine, then toughened up his rhetoric. Second, after the Islamic State took Mosul, he wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal titled, “America Shouldn’t Choose Sides in Iraq’s Civil War.” Now, as Eliana notes below, he wants to declare war on the Islamic State.
In both cases, I obviously agree with his second position, and always welcome evolution in the right direction. His defenders can argue that none of these positions are strictly contradictory and defend it all on “when facts change, I change my mind” grounds. But the more cynical interpretation is that he was following the politics. Amazingly enough, if he had maintained his initial attitude of not doing anything to check the rise of the Islamic State, he would be to the left of Elizabeth Warren right now.
There are two big problems for Paul here. One is that the politics of foreign policy are shifting, not just on the right, but more broadly. That means that Paul’s foreign policy, which was running with the grain of Republican sentiment in the post-Bush era, is now running against it. Navigating that for him will obviously be tricky, and creates the second problem. Paul is a conviction politician. That is an enormous part of his appeal. If he is seen as playing it too cute on foreign policy — trotting out robust Paulite sentiments, before walking them back into more conventional positions — he will undermine a major part of his broader appeal as a straight-shooter. Paul can run as a Paulite purist on foreign policy or he can run as a traditional Republican/cautious hawk. He can’t run as both.