Why Rand Paul Can’t Win the Republican Nomination

His heterodox views on foreign policy are badly out of step with an increasingly hawkish party.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord International Hotel and Conference Center March 7, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland.
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
Add to Briefcase
Josh Kraushaar
Feb. 3, 2015, 3 p.m.

Throughout 2014, many Re­pub­lic­an strategists quietly wor­ried about the pro­spect of Rand Paul win­ning the GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion, thanks to his un­con­ven­tion­al for­eign policy views. As the think­ing went, he could pre­vail in a di­vided Re­pub­lic­an primary thanks to his com­mit­ted sup­port­ers and the GOP’s re­newed fo­cus on fisc­al is­sues where he’s aligned with the party rank and file. Against Hil­lary Clin­ton, however, his non­in­ter­ven­tion­ist ideo­logy would be a non­starter in a gen­er­al elec­tion. But with the in­ter­na­tion­al stage turn­ing more dan­ger­ous, Re­pub­lic­ans may have un­wit­tingly found a solu­tion to their prob­lem.

As Paul ag­gress­ively pre­pares for a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, his odds of win­ning the GOP nom­in­a­tion have nev­er looked longer. With IS­IS amass­ing ter­rit­ory in the Middle East, Rus­sia re­main­ing bel­li­ger­ent against Ukraine and the threat of a nuc­le­ar Ir­an grow­ing, the pub­lic has taken a de­cidedly hawk­ish turn. The second-most-im­port­ant is­sue for Amer­ic­ans is the de­feat of IS­IS, ac­cord­ing to the latest NBC/Wall Street Journ­al poll, jump­ing up in sig­ni­fic­ance in re­cent months. Re­pub­lic­ans, in par­tic­u­lar, fa­vor a more ag­gress­ive re­sponse to tack­ling ter­ror­ism. A 53 per­cent ma­jor­ity of Re­pub­lic­ans told Quin­nipi­ac they sup­por­ted ground troops to fight ter­ror­ism in Ir­aq, even though 55 per­cent of voters over­all were against it. The party ran on a mus­cu­lar for­eign policy in the 2014 midterms, and elec­ted sev­er­al out­spoken hawks, in­clud­ing Sens. Tom Cot­ton of Arkan­sas and Joni Ernst of Iowa.

Even in Iowa, a dovish state where Paul holds strong fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings, the ap­pet­ite for in­creased mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion­ism against IS­IS is high. In a new Bloomberg sur­vey, nearly half of Re­pub­lic­ans ranked “more ag­gress­ively pur­su­ing ter­ror­ists” as a lead­ing is­sue out of 10 tested, rank­ing a close second be­hind re­peal­ing Obama­care.

But as the coun­try is tak­ing a hawk­ish turn, Paul has in­stead veered to the left. He’s the only Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an op­pos­ing the re­im­ple­ment­a­tion of tough sanc­tions on Ir­an, co­spon­sor­ing a less-pun­it­ive al­tern­at­ive bill with lib­er­al Sen. Bar­bara Box­er. He’s one of the few Re­pub­lic­ans to sup­port Pres­id­ent Obama’s push to nor­mal­ize re­la­tions with Cuba, mak­ing him the only Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate to take that po­s­i­tion. When he spoke to an os­tens­ibly friendly, liber­tari­an-minded audi­ence at the Koch-backed Free­dom Part­ners sum­mit last month, Paul re­ceived a cool re­cep­tion for his for­eign policy views while Sen. Marco Ru­bio’s more-hawk­ish views re­ceived an en­thu­si­ast­ic re­sponse.

Paul’s po­s­i­tions have be­come so out-of-step with the Re­pub­lic­an elect­or­ate that even those who agree with him on for­eign policy are sound­ing bear­ish about his chances. “If we are be­ing hon­est, the 2014 elec­tion re-em­powered and re­in­vig­or­ated the party’s hawks,” cor­res­pond­ent Mi­chael Brendan Dougherty wrote in The Week.

If the elec­tion was tak­ing place in 2008, with a war-weary pub­lic, Paul’s views might be get­ting more trac­tion. Or if for­eign policy was play­ing a sec­ond­ary role in polit­ics, as it did throughout Obama’s first term, Paul’s path to the nom­in­a­tion would be a little clear­er. But even Paul un­der­stands the polit­ic­al real­ity of run­ning as a dove in a hawk­ish party. Last Septem­ber, he wrote an op-ed in Time magazine de­clar­ing he “was not an isol­a­tion­ist” in the wake of new­found ter­ror­ist threats — say­ing he would have ac­ted more “strongly and de­cis­ively against IS­IS” than Obama. More re­cently, however, he’s been abandon­ing the pose that his non­in­ter­ven­tion­ism con­sti­tutes tough­ness.

To be sure, there’s a small but vo­cal con­stitu­ency with­in the GOP that fa­vors Paul’s cau­tious po­s­i­tion­ing on for­eign policy. Des­pite his het­ero­dox views, Paul still holds strong fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings among Re­pub­lic­an voters. And in such a crowded field, a can­did­ate who can build up a strong, re­li­able core of sup­port­ers will have a shot to win the nom­in­a­tion. He could con­ceiv­ably get trac­tion by press­ing more-hawk­ish GOP can­did­ates on wheth­er they sup­port send­ing troops to the Middle East — a po­s­i­tion that draws less sup­port, but still ma­jor­ity back­ing among Re­pub­lic­ans.

Yet it’s still telling how most of his Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ents aren’t even hedging their bets on a more as­sert­ive Amer­ic­an for­eign policy. On ABC’s This Week, Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er bolstered his hawk­ish bona fides by de­clar­ing sup­port for Amer­ic­an troops be­ing de­ployed in­to Syr­ia if ne­ces­sary to de­feat IS­IS. This week, Ru­bio led Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions sub­com­mit­tee hear­ings de­cry­ing the pres­id­ent’s policy in Cuba. Jeb Bush has laid out a for­eign policy vis­ion that sounds aw­fully sim­il­ar to his broth­er’s, call­ing for sus­tained Amer­ic­an en­gage­ment across the globe. It’s hard to find any Re­pub­lic­ans who don’t sound like George W. Bush on the sub­ject.

In 2008, when the pub­lic’s op­pos­i­tion to the Ir­aq War was near its peak and George W. Bush held re­cord-low ap­prov­al rat­ings, the Re­pub­lic­an primary field barely broke with the pres­id­ent. John Mc­Cain, Rudy Gi­uliani, Mitt Rom­ney, Fred Thompson, and Mike Hucka­bee all toed the party line, with Ron Paul the lone out­lier. And des­pite re­ceiv­ing out­sized at­ten­tion that year, Paul re­ceived only 5.6 per­cent of the over­all pres­id­en­tial primary vote.

Rand Paul is cer­tainly run­ning a more pro­fes­sion­al, main­stream cam­paign than his fath­er, but he will still face a ceil­ing among GOP voters who won’t sup­port him over for­eign policy.

There was a time when Paul could have pre­vailed des­pite be­ing out of step with his party on a key is­sue. It’s a chal­lenge, for ex­ample, that Jeb Bush faces on Com­mon Core and Ru­bio faces on im­mig­ra­tion. But with voters re­coil­ing from rising ter­ror­ism over­seas, it’s a sub­ject that Paul can’t eas­ily spin away or hope enough Re­pub­lic­an voters will ig­nore. With Obama now re­ceiv­ing his low­est ap­prov­al rat­ings on for­eign policy, Paul risks be­ing aligned with the pres­id­ent at a time when GOP voters want a dra­mat­ic course cor­rec­tion.

What We're Following See More »
European Commission President to Visit White House
54 minutes ago

With President Trump back from a trip in which he seemed to undermine European alliances while cozying up to Vladimir Putin, the White House has announced that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will visit on July 25. According to a statement, the two "will focus on improving transatlantic trade and forging a stronger economic partnership."

IRS Relaxes Reporting Rules for Dark Money Groups
1 hours ago
House Launches Investigation Into VA Nursing Homes
1 hours ago

"The House Veterans Affairs Committee has launched an investigation into care at the VA’s 133 nursing homes after learning the agency had given almost half of them the lowest possible score in secret, internal rankings. The probe follows an investigation by The Boston Globe and USA TODAY that showed 60 VA nursing homes ... rated only one out of five stars for quality last year in the agency’s own ranking system." Internal documents revealed that "patients in more than two-thirds of VA nursing homes were more likely to suffer pain and serious bedsores than their private sector counterparts, and that "VA nursing homes scored worse than private nursing homes on a majority of key quality indicators, including rates of anti-psychotic drug prescription and decline in daily living skills."

House Republican Introduces Net Neutrality Legislation
1 hours ago

Colorado Representative Mike Coffman has introduced a bill "that would codify free internet regulations into law" by instituting the "basic outlines of the Federal Communication Commission’s 2015 Open Internet order." Coffman's bill amends the 1934 Telecommunications Act by "banning providers from controlling traffic quality and speed and forbidding them from participating in paid prioritization programs or charging access fees from edge providers." The GOP congressman has also "signed on to a Democrat-led effort to reinstate the net neutrality rules that the FCC voted to repeal late last year."

DOJ Indicts Another Russian National
20 hours ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.