Rand Paul’s Next Crusade

The Kentucky Republican hijacked the national conversation over drones. Now he’s looking to do it again over U.S. aid to other nations.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., listens during a state legislative committee hearing on the legalization of growing hemp before he testified at the Capitol Annex in Frankfort, Ky., Monday, Feb. 11, 2013. 
AP
Shane Goldmacher
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Shane Goldmacher
Aug. 29, 2013, 10:55 a.m.

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.

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