On Friday, Senator Rand Paul gave a rousing speech at CPAC in which he repudiated almost the entire Republican foreign policy of the aughts, attacking unlimited government surveillance and calling for a new emphasis on civil liberties. On Saturday, he won the CPAC straw poll.
Few politicians have engendered such a philosophical shift as Paul, whose filibuster alone completely rewrote public opinion on drones. But the decisiveness of that shift can mask the fact that the details of Paul’s foreign policy, while not indecisive, are tough to nail down. Paul knows there’s a golden mean between the extremes of neoconservatism and isolationism, but he often sounds like he’s still searching for it.
Two days after calling for a less hawkish foreign policy at CPAC, Paul released this op-ed in Time magazine:
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a gross violation of that nation’s sovereignty and an affront to the international community. His continuing occupation of Ukraine is completely unacceptable and Russia’s President should be isolated for his actions.
It is America’s duty to condemn these actions in no uncertain terms. It is our role as a global leader to be the strongest nation in opposing Russia’s latest aggression.
Paul talks tougher than we've come to expect and blasts President Obama's limp approach to Russia, but also rules out military action. He proposes a number of solutions, some of which, like removing export bans on oil and gas to Europe, are perfectly sensible, while others, like slapping sanctions on Russia, are more debatable. As Robert Pape argues today, “imposing economic sanctions on a state is similar to backing an angry dog into a corner -- in most cases, the dog will become more vicious, and more defensive”—which is the last thing we want with an already-nationalistic Russia.
But policy quibbles aside, the point is that Paul is once again trying to find the golden mean (I refuse to call it a “sweet spot”) of conservative foreign policy.
Jim Antle rightly wonders whether “such arguments won’t be satisfying in the emotionally charged environment of the Republican primaries.” They may not be, and at the very least, Paul still has quite a challenge ahead of him. A new CNN survey shows that 48 percent of the public—a plurality—supports how President Obama is handling the Ukraine crisis, meaning doing nothing at all. Polling last year found that Americans decisively opposed intervening in the Syrian civil war. At the same time, Republican primaries require soaring campaign rhetoric, which is better suited to the barrel-chested bromides peddled by the likes of Chris Christie than Paul’s nuanced restraint. And Paul has also presented himself as a Republican who can make inroads among young voters, who are at least interested in his pro-civil liberties talk.
Paul will have to find that mean while keeping those three groups onboard—a general public weary of war, Republican voters who still maintain some semblance of hawkishness, and pliable left-leaning Millennials worried about their privacy. It’s quite the needle to thread.
Then again, Paul won the CPAC straw poll by 20 points. It’s not Ohio on election night, but it should count for something.