The Politics: Will Syria Give Rand Paul a Leg Up on Marco Rubio?

The debate over a possible U.S. strike against Syria gives Paul a welcome platform, and forces rival Rubio into an awkward position.

National Journal
Beth Reinhard
Sept. 4, 2013, 1:20 a.m.

For an un­con­ven­tion­al but likely pres­id­en­tial con­tender such as Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky, tim­ing is everything.

The de­bate in Con­gress over Pres­id­ent Obama’s call for a mil­it­ary strike against Syr­ia comes at an ideal mo­ment for the non­in­ter­ven­tion­ist ex­pec­ted to seek the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion in 2016. The vote on Syr­ia will put Paul right where he wants to be: at odds with a Demo­crat­ic ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­foundly mis­trus­ted by the con­ser­vat­ives and tea-party act­iv­ists who dom­in­ate GOP primar­ies. Paul’s world­view is also in line with polling that shows voters dis­gus­ted by years of war in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan.

“I don’t think get­ting in­volved has a na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terest for us in Syr­ia,” Paul said Wed­nes­day, echo­ing the sen­ti­ment in a new Wash­ing­ton Post/ABC News poll that found six in 10 Amer­ic­ans op­pose mis­sile strikes against the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment for us­ing chem­ic­al weapons against its own people.

Not so long ago, Paul would have looked out of step with his party and pub­lic opin­ion, es­pe­cially when com­pared with Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida, a po­ten­tial 2016 rival from the GOP’s long-dom­in­ant hawk­ish wing. But the for­eign policy script is start­ing to flip, put­ting Ru­bio in the awk­ward po­s­i­tion of re­con­cil­ing his lean­ings to­ward U.S. in­volve­ment over­seas with an in­creas­ingly war-weary elect­or­ate and his an­ti­pathy to­ward the Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ent.

The res­ult: Ru­bio is still on the fence, while Paul is clear about which side he’s on.

“At this mo­ment in time, the sen­at­or with the wind at his back polit­ic­ally speak­ing is Rand Paul, not Marco Ru­bio, and I say that with some re­luct­ance,” said Peter Wehner, an ad­viser to 2012 Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee Mitt Rom­ney who worked in the last three Re­pub­lic­an ad­min­is­tra­tions. “Though I have doubts about wheth­er Paul’s ar­gu­ment [on Syr­ia] will pre­vail in the end, his tim­ing is really smart.”

That cer­tainly wasn’t the case when his fath­er, then-Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, took a stand against mil­it­ary ac­tion in the fall of 2002. He was among only sev­en Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress who op­posed go­ing to war in Ir­aq. Paul’s vote de­fied a na­tion­al drum­beat to­ward war after the Sept. 11 at­tacks, not to men­tion a pres­id­ent from his own party, George W. Bush. Paul de­veloped a cult fol­low­ing in two bids for pres­id­ent but nev­er was con­sidered a main­stream can­did­ate.

In con­trast, his like-minded son is taken more ser­i­ously by a Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment that sees the in­creased pop­u­lar ap­peal of non­in­ter­ven­tion­ism and is look­ing for a strong foil to a White House gone Demo­crat­ic. Wehner ad­ded, “Paul is a rising force in the party at a time when Re­pub­lic­ans are hav­ing something of an iden­tity crisis on na­tion­al se­cur­ity.”

Ru­bio, too, seems un­sure of where he stands. At a Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee hear­ing on Wed­nes­day, Ru­bio said Syr­ia is “clearly tied” to U.S. na­tion­al se­cur­ity but that he is “very skep­tic­al” that a lim­ited mil­it­ary strike will pre­vent chem­ic­al-weapon at­tacks.

Such cau­tion con­tra­dicts his bio­graphy, 2010 cam­paign, and track re­cord in Con­gress. Ru­bio defines him­self as “the son of Cuban ex­iles” who es­caped the re­press­ive re­gime of Fi­del Castro. He cam­paigned on a plat­form of Amer­ic­an ex­cep­tion­al­ism and a view of the U.S. as a cham­pi­on of hu­man rights around the globe. Dat­ing back to 2011, he’s been al­lied with Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., and South Car­o­lina’s Lind­sey Gra­ham — two of the lead­ing GOP spokes­men for mil­it­ary ac­tion in Syr­ia — in call­ing for heav­ier sanc­tions against Syr­i­an lead­er Bashar al-As­sad and for arm­ing the Syr­i­an rebels.

Cracks in Ru­bio’s hawk­ish found­a­tion star­ted to show dur­ing the de­bate earli­er this year over for­eign aid to Egypt. Paul has fer­vently op­posed send­ing aid, while Ru­bio has sought a middle ground in which the aid would con­tin­ue un­der more lim­ited cir­cum­stances be­cause the U.S. can’t “re­treat” from its role on the world stage.

But with the stakes in Syr­ia much high­er, Ru­bio is strug­gling to jux­ta­pose his pro­cliv­ity to­ward for­eign in­ter­ven­tion with cri­ti­cism of the pres­id­ent’s hand­ling of the crisis. If the tim­ing is good for Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, an­oth­er po­ten­tial GOP pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate op­posed to mil­it­ary ac­tion in Syr­ia, it couldn’t be worse for Ru­bio, who is weath­er­ing a back­lash from his own party for back­ing im­mig­ra­tion re­forms also favored by Obama. Ru­bio has bal­anced that po­s­i­tion out with a strident de­mand that Re­pub­lic­ans who op­pose the pres­id­ent’s health care law should re­ject the fed­er­al budget.

“Any ac­com­mod­a­tion, any agree­ment with the pres­id­ent is a li­ab­il­ity in a Re­pub­lic­an primary,” said GOP con­sult­ant Steve Schmidt, a top ad­viser to Mc­Cain’s 2008 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. “The po­ten­tial can­did­ates in 2016 like Ru­bio and Paul will be tak­ing po­s­i­tions on Syr­ia and oth­er is­sues that will come to define them and ex­pose real fault lines long be­fore the primary de­bates.”

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4415) }}

What We're Following See More »
STAFF PICKS
What the Current Crop of Candidates Could Learn from JFK
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Much has been made of David Brooks’s recent New York Times column, in which confesses to missing already the civility and humanity of Barack Obama, compared to who might take his place. In NewYorker.com, Jeffrey Frank reminds us how critical such attributes are to foreign policy. “It’s hard to imagine Kennedy so casually referring to the leader of Russia as a gangster or a thug. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine any president comparing the Russian leader to Hitler [as] Hillary Clinton did at a private fund-raiser. … Kennedy, who always worried that miscalculation could lead to war, paid close attention to the language of diplomacy.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Maher Weighs in on Bernie, Trump and Palin
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

“We haven’t seen a true leftist since FDR, so many millions are coming out of the woodwork to vote for Bernie Sanders; he is the Occupy movement now come to life in the political arena.” So says Bill Maher in his Hollywood Reporter cover story (more a stream-of-consciousness riff than an essay, actually). Conservative states may never vote for a socialist in the general election, but “this stuff has never been on the table, and these voters have never been activated.” Maher saves most of his bile for Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, writing that by nominating Palin as vice president “John McCain is the one who opened the Book of the Dead and let the monsters out.” And Trump is picking up where Palin left off.

Source:
×