The Tea Party scored its two biggest triumphs last year with the election of Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. Both were discouraged from running by leaders of their own party. Both had to overcome the determined opposition of the Republican establishment to make it through their primaries in the first place.
Paul and Rubio were both uncharacteristically honest about the need for entitlement reform, going so far as to contemplate means-testing Social Security even though they needed the votes of senior citizens. Paul was running in Kentucky, where about 60 percent of the registered voters are Democrats. Rubio stood for election in Florida, a retirement mecca.
Both won in November by double-digit margins and have pressured Republican leaders from the right on spending now that they are in office. Rubio has railed against increasing the federal government’s debt ceiling. Paul has proposed his own five-year plan to balance the budget and has chastised Paul Ryan for not going far enough. Both senators voted against the budget deal struck by President Obama and House Republicans.
Their similarities stop at the water’s edge. True, when Obama decided to wage “kinetic military action” against Libya, both senators recognized it for what it was — war — and demanded that Congress authorize the intervention. But Paul and Rubio diverged sharply from there.
In April, Paul introduced a sense of the Senate resolution affirming the following 2007 quote from then-candidate Barack Obama: “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” The move so flummoxed Democrats that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid abruptly adjourned the Senate for the weekend rather than have his colleagues vote on the amendment while Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) bizarrely claimed President Bush had broken precedent by consulting Congress before going into Iraq and Afghanistan.
Senator Paul also insisted that Congress vote to formally declare war against Libya and made fairly clear he intended to vote against any such declaration. Neither of Paul’s Libya proposals went anywhere. The Senate ultimately voted down his language agreeing with Obama nearly four years ago, since the Democratic majority wanted to agree with Obama today.
Rubio also proposed a resolution authorizing the use of force in Libya. But his idea was to make regime change the official policy of the U.S. government, and unlike Paul he fully intended to vote in favor. “This resolution should… state that removing Moamar Qadhafi from power is in our national interest and therefore should authorize the President to accomplish this goal,” Rubio wrote in a late March letter to Reid. “To that end, the resolution should urge the President to immediately recognize the Interim Transitional National Council as the legitimate government in Libya.”
Libya is just one specific example of a broader disagreement between the two Tea Party favorites over U.S. foreign policy. Paul, the son of the noninterventionist presidential candidate Congressman Ron Paul, believes restraint in the resort to arms is an integral part of limited government. Rubio, the son of Cuban exiles, sees a robust foreign policy as indispensable to American world leadership.
On the campaign trail in Kentucky, Paul answered a question about issues of war and peace this way: “I think the most important thing we do with the federal government is our national defense, bar none, but then I think it’s open to debate what’s in our national defense.” In his recent book The Tea Party Goes to Washington, Paul complained, “Many Republicans treat war like Democrats treat welfare.”
In a fascinating interview with Robert Costa of National Review Online, Rubio sounded a very different note by inveighing against what he described as isolationism. “There is no replacement for America in the world,” Rubio told Costa. “If America withdraws from the world stage, it will create a vacuum, and that vacuum will not be filled by someone better than us.”
“It is so important that conservatism does not translate into isolationism,” Rubio continued. “Isolationism has never worked for America. It is not going to work in the 21st century.” Rubio’s chief of staff is Cesar Conda, the former Dick Cheney aide who during the 2010 primary season fired off an email warning to Republican hawks: “On foreign policy, [global war on terror], Gitmo, Afghanistan, Rand Paul is NOT one of us.”
This debate is only going to intensify after the death of Osama bin Laden. Many conservatives are likely going to look at the successful strike on the al Qaeda leader and conclude it is possible to fight terrorism without nation-building or invading and occupying countries until they are democratic. Afghanistan is hardly more a functioning democracy than when bin Laden fled a decade ago. It is unclear how sincerely our putative ally in Pakistan was really helping us search for the 9/11 murderer. Some Pakistani forces may have been sheltering bin Laden as much as the Taliban.
Still other conservatives will contend that without a U.S. military presence overseas, complemented by the intelligence gathered through enhanced interrogation, there is no way to identify and disrupt terrorist networks. “It’s important that we remain vigilant in our efforts to defeat terrorist enemies and protect the American people,” House Speaker John Boehner said in his post-bin Laden press conference. “This makes our engagement in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan more important not less.”
Rand Paul and Marco Rubio have already established themselves as two of the most conservative members of the Senate. Rubio invokes Jesse Helms, Paul Robert Taft. They both quote Ronald Reagan. On most issues, they will be allies. On foreign policy, they couldn’t be further apart.
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