Sen. Rand Paul was not about to be interrupted. "Not now," he said, as Sen. John McCain, his GOP antagonist on foreign policy matters, tried to butt in with a question. It was late July, and Paul was on the Senate floor pitching his measure to cut off aid to Egypt after the military takeover. "I say not one penny more to these countries that allow mobs to burn our flag," Paul said.
His amendment lost in a lopsided 13-86 tally. But the landslide left Paul undeterred. Now he's planning to demand another such vote in September. Nearly six months after he grabbed national headlines and the national consciousness with a 13-hour filibuster over drone policy, the tea-party Republican from Kentucky, with his eye on the presidency in 2016, has identified his next big target: foreign aid.
The issue is a perfect fit for Paul. It blends his budgetary hawkishness with his dovish international tendencies. It differentiates him from most potential 2016 Republican presidential rivals (with the exception of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas), as muscular foreign policy remains the GOP orthodoxy. It also polls well. A Pew survey in February found that more Americans wanted to cut foreign aid than any other part of the federal budget (out of 19 categories). And it was the only spending item that a majority of independents wanted to see reduced.
"The more popular the issue is, the more he can elevate it into the discussion," said Doug Stafford, a senior Paul adviser and the executive director of his PAC. Paul has argued for eventually eliminating all foreign aid, which represents barely more than 1 percent of the budget. "It's one of the issues, because of its popularity politically, [where] he has a chance of succeeding."
Even Paul's opponents recognize the populist potency of bashing foreign aid. Convincing Americans that their tax dollars should be spent on bridges in Kentucky (or Iowa or New Hampshire), not in Egypt or Pakistan, isn't a hard sell. "There is a real superficial appeal," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the former Homeland Security Committee chairman and an opponent of Paul's approach. "It oversimplifies issues and gives the false impression that there are easy answers to very complex issues."
Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, has derided Paul's approach as a "poll-tested foreign policy." The aid is key to maintaining stability and American influence in volatile parts of the world, he said. As for Paul's argument, Corker told National Journal, "I guess it would be more impactful if it was not about what polled well but what was in our international interests."
Still, current events have bolstered Paul's cause. Within weeks of his failed amendment, the ruling Egyptian military opened fire on civilians. More than 1,000 were slain. "He really can point to events and say, "˜I was right,' " said Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. Opinion has begun to shift in the Senate, with McCain, who called Paul's Egypt amendment a "terrific mistake" in July, saying by mid-August that the U.S. should cut off aid.
Not that hawkish Republicans plan to credit Paul with any foresight on Egypt. "That's the same principle as a broken clock being right twice a day," King told National Journal.
Foreign aid is not a new cause for the Kentuckian — he's been forcing votes and talking about it since his first month in office — but his new seat on the Foreign Relations panel and his expected bid for president in 2016 have given him a far bigger platform. He's already shown a willingness to campaign on it. Last October, Paul paid to air ads attacking Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida and Joe Manchin of West Virginia for backing aid to Egypt, Pakistan, and Libya. The ads so angered fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina that he crossed party lines to hold a conference call defending Manchin only weeks before the election.
The issue is not without its land mines for Paul, especially concerning Israel, which receives billions of dollars in U.S. aid. During a trip to the Jewish state earlier this year, Paul delicately emphasized that Israel would be last on his list for cutbacks. Still, it was no coincidence that on the floor both Graham and McCain cited a letter from the pro-Israel lobby opposing Paul's Egypt measure. "Isn't the question whether the senator from Kentucky knows what is better for Israel or Israel knows what is better for Israel?" McCain asked.
Israel aside, demonizing foreign aid offers Paul political flexibility. He has used the issue to woo evangelicals ("Not one penny more to countries that persecute Christians," he tweeted this month); to attack the president ("Obama says he "˜deplores violence in Egypt,' but U.S. foreign aid continues to help pay for it," another tweet read); and to press for budget cuts.
It also endears him to his party's libertarian base — the roughly 10 percent of the GOP presidential-primary electorate that rallied around his father, former Rep. Ron Paul. "He can appeal to his father's supporters on this, but he doesn't turn off average Republicans," Bandow said.
Since the turn of the 21st century, no one in Congress has spoken more about foreign aid than Rand Paul, even though he's been there only since 2011, according to a Sunlight Foundation analysis. (Ron Paul finished second.) "When a bipartisan consensus of elected officials in Washington wishes to do something that's unpopular with the American people, they tend not to want to talk about it too much," Stafford said.
The Senate may not yet be ready to "stand with Rand" on aid abroad — but its members will at least have to sit and listen.