Who would have thought back in 2010 when Rand Paul won election to the Senate as a libertarian champion that the first media blowup in a Paul presidential campaign wouldn’t be over his past support for privatizing Social Security, or his misgivings over the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but over his flip-flops?
There used to be a time when Paul’s inevitable presidential campaign offered the prospect of a stark GOP debate over principle on foreign policy. Not anymore.
We now have the “new” Rand Paul. He entered politics as his father’s son on foreign policy and has emerged as a presidential candidate who wants to be known as the second coming of James Baker.
To believe Paul’s latest posture, he’s a me-too Republican on foreign policy, only a little less so — the most-hawkish dove, or most-dovish hawk, in the Republican field, depending on the day.
This has been an awkward and often unconvincing transition. The senator got snippy on Wednesday when Savannah Guthrie of the “Today” show asked him about his changing position on Iran. She pointed out that Paul said in 2007 that Iran is not a threat. Paul responded that 2007 was “a long time ago,” as if the statute of limitations on prior positions expires long before the passage of eight years.
One wonders how far Paul would push this. In 2012, Paul was the lone vote against a Senate resolution in favor of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and against containment. But, hey, that was three long years ago — when he was young and irresponsible, he was young and irresponsible.
In 2014, he clarified by stating his unequivocal opposition to containing Iran, despite his opposition to saying we won’t contain Iran. He defended this as “strategic ambiguity,” and it was certainly ambiguous.
It turns out he has a knack for ambiguity. Paul has made a point of supporting the Iran negotiations, but signed Sen. Tom Cotton’s letter meant to put a damper on the negotiations, while justifying that letter as strengthening President Barack Obama’s hand in the negotiations.
Usually, libertarians scold everyone else for their lack of purity from an Olympian height of disdain. Paul won’t have that problem. On foreign policy, he is struggling for coherence, let alone purity.
Not too long ago, it seemed that Paul was ready to pull the party his way on national security, rather than having to play catch-up with the party’s drift in the other direction.
In retrospect, the GOP opposition to bombing Syria after President Obama’s “red line” threat in 2013 was the high-water mark for a Paulite impulse within the party. Soon enough, the red-line fiasco became a watchword for Obama’s weakness, and events — the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the rise of ISIS, the diplomatic strains with Israel — revived a traditional GOP reflex toward toughness.
Rand Paul says he has simply evolved, but it is rare for any politician to “evolve” in a direction that isn’t more politically convenient for him.
This gets to the difference between Ron and Rand Paul, of course. For Ron, the electoral pointlessness of his presidential runs was the point. He was a conviction politician who ran to generate support for a cause, not to win anything.
Rand believes he’s in a different game, which is why he’s increasingly a housebroken libertarian. His attacks on career politicians are particularly tinny as he maneuvers his way around the rules in Kentucky to run for president and re-election to the Senate at the same time, lest he face the prospect all politicians naturally dread: relinquishing office.
It’s not clear what Paul will get from all of this. He is in a tough field, much tougher than his dad ran against in 2008 and 2012, and faces the risk of underperforming him, even as he compromises — and obfuscates — to try to make himself more viable.
The new Rand Paul will be hard-pressed to escape the old Rand Paul.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.