Politics & Policy

Rand Paul, ‘Political Libertarian’

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) walks from Senate Republican weekly policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 6, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
The Kentucky senator has been forced to compromise his non-interventionist principles once again. We shouldn’t hold that against him.

Rand Paul’s vote was needed to confirm Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, and his refusal to give it was making some Republicans and conservatives upset. “What’s wrong with Pompeo?” they asked. “He’s well-within the party mainstream, he’s competent, and he has the president’s blessing.” For Paul and his most fervent supporters, the answer had been that Pompeo was far too hawkish. But on Monday, the junior senator from Kentucky relented. “Rand Paul Caves” read one headline. “Rand Paul’s Pompeo switch pleases Trump, angers libertarian base” said another.

The focus, in other words, was squarely on Paul’s repeated failure to shift the Republican party’s foreign-policy orientation. And the statement his office issued explaining his change of heart seemed to offer proof that he’d gotten nothing but hot air for his trouble:

President Trump believes that Iraq was a mistake, that regime change has destabilized the region, and that we must end our involvement with Afghanistan. Having received assurances from President Trump and Director Pompeo that he agrees with the President on these important issues, I have decided to support his nomination to be our next Secretary of State.

It all had the feel of compromise and dissatisfaction, of a purely political decision. And for Paul, I think it was the right one. I agree with Paul’s project of calling the party to a less interventionist foreign policy. But doing so requires a very hard-headed acceptance of the limits of one senator’s power and of the political landscape.

The Republican party and the conservative movement have shown a capacity to tolerate and even be inspired by attention-getting “stands” on principle. They do so generously only so long as such stands are not seen as aiding the Democrats in their drive to obstruct the Trump administration.

Significantly, Trump seems to have the same qualified tolerance. He intuitively understands that some senators need to play tough with him, and he doesn’t take it too personally. He lets others maintain their brands, so long as they don’t do so at the expense of his own. “Rand Paul is a very special guy as far as I’m concerned,” he said when asked about the Pompeo fight. “He’s never let me down.”

The promises given to Paul don’t amount to much, but they do allow him to reconcile himself to Pompeo’s nomination while saving face. Paul can say he called the public’s and the White House’s attention back to Trump’s campaign promises and to the small but influential non-interventionist part of the president’s political base.

It’s about as much as you can ask of a senator who constitutes a one-man faction. And it’s as much as you can expect of a senator on foreign policy, when Congress has ceded so much foreign- and military-policy authority to the executive branch.

Ultimately, Paul is a “political libertarian” in a way that we haven’t seen before. His position in the Senate requires compromises that his father, Ron Paul, or other libertarian gadflies like Representative Justin Amash, have never had to make. Even in an age of intense polarization, the House is big enough to accommodate a few quixotic holdouts. The Senate just isn’t.

But a “political libertarian” is inevitably going to disappoint those of his supporters who want a politician to embody their beliefs in a way calculated not to change government policy and our political culture, but to perpetually and clearly condemn it.

Realists, libertarians, and non-interventionists can continue to question whether the compromises Paul is making are worth it. But that he has to make them should be beyond dispute by now. So far, his judgement seems just about right.

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