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.”

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