Boy, that escalated quickly. President Obama restored diplomatic relations with Communist Cuba, Republicans disagreed about the wisdom of that decision, and then Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) stabbed Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) with a trident.
The Florida senator’s suggestion that his tea-party colleague “has no idea what he’s talking about” with regard to Cuba policy elicited a cheeky, but sharp, rebuke from Paul, who accused Rubio of isolationism.
“If you’re going to take a whack at Rand, he’s going to take a whack at you back,” Jesse Benton, a GOP operative married to Paul’s niece, tells National Review Online. “It’s a decision that Rand has made that at this stage, right now, no one gets to take a free shot.”
Paul continued the fight through the weekend. When Rubio described Paul as “a supporter of the Obama foreign policy,” Paul’s senior adviser Doug Stafford retorted on NRO that “the Rubio–Obama foreign policy has made the Middle East and North Africa less safe.”
This spat showcases Paul’s commitment to defending his unorthodox foreign-policy philosophy — he calls it conservative realism, while Republican hawks, including former vice president Dick Cheney, call it isolationism — aggressively. It also sheds light on the cold war developing among Rubio, Paul, and Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas). The three tea-party senators arrived in Congress as natural allies, but their national conservative profiles set them on a collision course for the 2016 Republican nomination. Paul’s rivals regard foreign policy as his Achilles’ heel, and they are coming after him.
Paul’s team welcomes the fight, thinking he has an opportunity to win voters who are weary with traditional Republican policies and President Obama alike. “I think that’s a characteristic you look for in a president,” Benton said. “If you’re not pugnacious, you’re not going to be very effective.”
Paul has never been short on pugnacity. In March 2013 he launched a memorable 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to lead the CIA. Paul’s aim was to force Obama to acknowledge that he does not have the authority to carry out drone strikes in the United States on American citizens suspected of terrorism. Rubio and Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) quickly joined him on the Senate floor. The next day, Attorney General Eric Holder conceded that Paul was correct.
Pundits hailed Paul and Rubio as the new leaders of the GOP. Cruz, then a fledgling senator, joined them in a constellation of conservative stars. And the Texas freshman maintains that they’re still a team, despite their differences.
“Rand and Marco are good friends, and I admire them both,” Cruz tells NRO in a statement. “We don’t agree on everything, but Rand is a tremendous voice for liberty, and Marco is truly gifted at inspiring us all to restore the American dream.”
Such sentiments haven’t resulted in a long list of joint legislative efforts, with some Senate aides privately complaining that Paul’s presidential hopes render him unwilling to join in fights that he can’t control. “We haven’t heard from Paul as far as the Senate goes since he did his filibuster,” according to one conservative Senate aide. “He doesn’t fight any battles with us; he’s capitulated to leadership constantly because he’s running for president.”
Paul’s aides dispute that characterization, saying that he has worked hard on priorities such as prison reform and NSA reform, but the policy changes he advocates don’t have broad support among Senate Republicans. “Many times your conservatives band together and fight as a team,” one Paul aide tells NRO. “It hasn’t been happening all that much.”
The aide suggests that Paul and the other presidential hopefuls have drifted apart as the calendar turns toward 2016. Benton says that the drone-program filibuster was the high-water mark of their relationship.
He says Paul has come under fire because, of the triumvirate, he is the most likely to win the Republican nomination. “You talk to a lot of these opinion makers and they see Rand as someone that is one of the few people that actually has a real legitimate shot to occupy the Oval Office,” the aide says. “They see Rand right now in a way that they just don’t see Ted or Marco. So that sort of naturally means that, as a conservative senator, your path to the nomination in some way means having to take down Rand Paul.”
Cruz speaks well of Paul, but private rumors and public altercations suggest that their relationship is deteriorating. In March 2014, Cruz implied that Paul fails to recognize that “U.S. leadership is critical in the world.”
Paul’s team regarded that as a “savvy” attempt to drive negative attention to the Kentucky Republican, according to one adviser, who responded accordingly. Paul punched back in an opinion piece on Breitbart, writing that “what we don’t need right now is politicians who have never seen war talking tough for the sake of their political careers.” The rhetoric was reminiscent of his father’s calling Newt Gingrich a “chicken hawk” in 2012.
Such an aggressive response perplexed some conservative friends of the two senators, given that, at CPAC a few days earlier, Cruz had praised Ron Paul as one of two Republicans, along with Ronald Reagan, who had energized young voters by sticking to their principles.
“It’s very important to [Paul] to make sure his foreign policy is defined to voters the way he intends it to be,” says Benton. “It’s important to Rand and important to the campaign that Rand define his foreign policy as what it really is: conservative realism.”
As Paul’s response against Rubio grows more personal, he risks alienating friends and allies of the Senate trio of Rubio, Cruz, and himself. Paul’s problem is compounded by his having a little less political capital with conservatives after his endorsement of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) in the 2014 primary.
“Rand’s attacks on Marco — someone who has a lot of credibility on Cuba — show that Rand is for Rand,” says one frustrated conservative who knows both lawmakers. “He’s so desperate to be president that he’s even willing to attack his friends to get there. That’s not appealing. Republican voters want to nominate a strong, steady conservative who can take the hits without losing his cool.”
A Republican operative from South Carolina, one of the crucial early-primary states, suggests that Paul has no choice if he wants to avoid the fate of his father’s presidential campaigns. “As soon as the word ‘isolationist’ is synonymous with Rand Paul, he cannot win,” says the operative, whose home state includes a significant military constituency. “He is trying to unwrite this narrative, and that’s what he’s sensitive on.”
And Paul’s team understands that. “He’s learned a lesson [from Ron Paul’s campaigns] that you cannot let unfounded attacks stand,” the aide says.
That sensitivity also makes Paul susceptible, according to another GOP operative, to “punching down” — giving weaker rivals political credibility by treating their critiques as worthy of response. The Rubio altercation is a case in point: Conventional wisdom holds that Jeb Bush’s presidential aspirations, along with the wounds that Rubio suffered during his attempt to pass an immigration bill, will likely deter the latter from running in 2016. Paul’s team regards Rubio as a contender, for now.
“That’s the conundrum right there: At what point are you punching down?” a Paul adviser says. The campaign will reevaluate whose critiques merit a response as the presidential primary field takes shape, he says.
Don’t expect Paul to mute his response, even if he shortens his list of political targets. The last two presidential elections show that Ron and Rand Paul rather like their hawkish campaign tactics.
As one ally put it: “When they walk, it clangs.”
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.