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
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.

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