Politics & Policy

ISIS Killed Rand Paul’s White House Hopes

Paul at a campaign event in Sioux City, Iowa, January 7, 2016. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Last night’s debate was notable in part for a missing person. Rand Paul — banished from the main stage — boycotted the undercard and ended the evening an afterthought. His White House hopes are on life support.

It was not always so. There was a time, not long past, when Paul was arguably the most consequential Republican in the Senate. An original tea-party candidate, he immediately established himself in Washington as a conviction politician — a man with a set of specific, distinct political ideas that set him apart not just from the Democratic majority but from many of his GOP colleagues.

And at times, it seemed that the man had met his moment. At a time when the GOP “brand” was at an all-time low with minority voters and the young, he took his small-government, libertarian message straight to Howard and Berkeley, and he worked with African-American leaders on prison reform. When Americans were weary of war, he led opposition to President Obama’s misguided planned intervention in Syria, where America risked repeating the mistake of Libya — bombing a dictator out of office only to see jihadists fill the void.

Most important, with the War on Terror seemingly winding down, he was the leader in decrying what he argued were American excesses. He demanded less intervention overseas, less surveillance at home. For a public that was both weary of war and (ironically enough) still enjoying the benefits of victory, it was a timely message. The Surge seemed to have left Iraq relatively peaceful and stable. Osama bin Laden was dead. While American troops were still struggling to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, that war was far from the headlines.

In 2013, Ed Snowden dumped thousands of classified documents into the public square. Americans learned about “metadata,” acquainted themselves with the NSA, and often recoiled from an often-mistaken impression that they were living their lives under Big Brother’s watchful eye. It was time, it seemed, to restore individual liberty and to pull back from botched interventions overseas.

#share#Paul was always going to be a tough sell to traditional Republicans, and his attacks on Iraq War supporters sometimes echoed the most vicious leftist talking points, but he argued that his political vision could grow the party. If he was right about the world, America’s national security would be enhanced through a less interventionist mindset. We could enjoy liberty and security, and Republicans could use small-government principles to appeal to minorities and youth, not repel them.

On June 4, 2014, an event happened that — in hindsight — ultimately doomed Paul’s as-yet-unannounced presidential campaign and revealed the limitations of his strategic ideas. ISIS attacked Mosul, Iraq. By June 10, the emerging caliphate had seized one of Iraq’s largest cities, and Christians and other refugees were fleeing headlong into Kurdistan. By mid June, it looked as if Kurdistan itself faced catastrophe, and potential genocide loomed. Obama essentially restarted the Iraq War with a bombing campaign that helped stop ISIS’s march on Erbil, and ISIS retaliated by publicly beheading American prisoners. The situation had changed.

#related#In the U.S., terror arrests have hit numbers not seen since the terrifying days after 9/11. The combination of ISIS’s downing of a Russian passenger jet, its urban assault in Paris, and the ISIS-inspired attacks in San Bernardino made Americans care less about who was storing their metadata and care more about stopping the world’s most vicious terrorist army. After recoiling from putting boots on the ground ever again in the Middle East, majorities of Americansincluding a majority of millennials — support a ground force to defeat ISIS.

America moved. Paul did not. And though I frequently disagree with Paul on national security, I admire him for the strength of his convictions and lament that many other GOP politicians seem to alter their military strategies based largely on their best reading of the polls. Rand Paul has convictions, and those convictions mean that, in 2016, the man and the moment will not meet.

– David French is a staff writer at National Review, an attorney (concentrating his practice in constitutional law and the law of armed conflict), and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

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