As Rand Paul lays groundwork for 2016 as a man in the mainstream of Republicanism, he keeps getting pulled back toward the libertarian roots that first catapulted him to political stardom.
His schedule Wednesday casts this central conundrum of his likely candidacy into sharp relief.
For months, Paul has carefully calibrated his public and private efforts to appeal to the Republican Party’s foreign policy elite. He’s pushed back aggressively when opponents slight him (“Rick Perry is dead wrong”) and he’s taken to Time magazine to declare, “I am not an isolationist.”
Yet he is headed to Greenville, N.C., to campaign Wednesday alongside Rep. Walter Jones, one of the most isolationist voices in the GOP, an outspoken antiwar lawmaker and a close friend of his father, Ron Paul. (Last year, Jones suggested that former Vice President Dick Cheney would end up “rotting in hell” for the Iraq war.) It is a political detour that carries some risk. The same hawkish wing of the GOP that Paul has been methodically courting, or at least trying to assuage, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars earlier this year trying to depose Jones from office.
“He’s trying to dance at two weddings, and I just don’t think it’s working,” said Noah Pollak, executive director for the Emergency Committee for Israel, which spent more than $300,000 against Jones. “Rand is really caught in the middle.”
Paul, it seems, has adopted California Gov. Jerry Brown’s long-standing “canoe theory” of politics (paddle a little left, paddle a little right, and chart a course down the political center) and refreshed it for the modern GOP era (paddle a little on the libertarian or tea-party side, paddle a little on the establishmentarian side, and steer down the center-right).
This has been true on policies both foreign and domestic. Paul supports social-conservative stances, for instance, but then says his party is best off not talking about bedroom matters. He likes to speak in aggressive, muscular rhetoric about international matters, but mostly to sell the use of softer power. He talks about slashing the budget. And then he focuses on reaching out to African-American voters.
Often, Paul is most at ease trying to redefine the existing parties, especially on issues of privacy and surveillance. As Paul said on Meet the Press recently, “If you wanna see a transformational election in our country, let the Democrats put forward a war hawk like Hillary Clinton, and you’ll see a transformation like you’ve never seen.”
For the hawks who have long dominated the Republican presidential nominating process, the appearance with Jones is a reminder of Paul’s libertarian pedigree. “Rand Paul and Walter Jones (and his good friend Ron Paul) are in fundamental agreement on foreign policy, and (thankfully) are in a small minority in the Republican Party and the conservative movement,” said William Kristol, editor of the influential Weekly Standard and a board member of the Emergency Committee for Israel, in an email.