The Passion of Rand Paul
Why the senator was against Chuck Hagel before he was for him.
“Speaking for myself only, I do not support Rand Paul and have not for quite some time now,” said Ryan Langer, who leads the University of Northern Iowa’s Young Americans for Liberty chapter, a pro-Ron Paul organization. “In my opinion, while he may share his father's last name, he certainly doesn't share his principles, the Hagel vote just being further evidence of that.”
Rand Paul flat-out rejected that characterization. “I will say to anybody from the libertarian side who wants to believe that Hagel is the next coming of Harry Browne that they need to read a little more about his past,” he said. (Browne, the two-time Libertarian Party nominee for president, blamed 9/11 on an “insane” American foreign policy.) “Hagel’s been a promoter of the draft. Not a very libertarian idea. He’s been a promoter of U.N. peacekeeping troops around the world, and intervention. He doesn’t like unilateral intervention, but he’s fine with group intervention around the world. He voted for the PATRIOT Act. He voted for the Iraq War.”
But neither the Hagel campaign nor the Dump Hagel campaign really ever got to those issues. The Dump Hagel movement had no grand strategy larger than “Let’s see if this sticks to him.” Challenging his philosophy wouldn’t slow him down, so the Washington Free Beacon and Hagel skeptics scoured public and private records for damaging quotes. Sen. Lindsey Graham personally sent Hagel three letters asking him to explain speeches—did he really call the State Department an “adjunct” of Israel’s foreign ministry?—and asking him to let reporters check out his Senate papers, locked up at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Sen. John Cornyn went after Hagel with a gambit that probably backfired: A letter from 15 senators asking the president to withdraw the nomination, for the tautological reason that “no Secretary of Defense has been confirmed and taken office with more than three Senators voting against him.”
Democrats shrugged this stuff off. “Some of the opposition to Hagel was really over the top,” said Michigan Sen. Carl Levin on Tuesday. “It kind of answered itself by the end. It was kind of self-defeating.” Yet the Democrats never really tried to defend Hagel on the merits. They never cited the New Yorker-profile-ready quotes that made Hagel a star in 2006 and 2007.
Libertarians wanted that defense to come from Paul. Three years earlier, he humiliated neoconservatives who tried to crush his Senate campaign on the grounds that he wasn’t hawkish. “On foreign policy, [global war on terror], Gitmo, Afghanistan, Rand Paul is NOT one of us,” wrote Cesar Conda—a Cheney aide who would become Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s chief of staff.
Paul got that. Some of the loudest Hagel critics, he said, were “people who’ve been mean-spirited to my dad.” That was an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” approach, and he didn’t share it. “They’re basing [their support] more on the vitriol against him, and probably, some of that wasn’t fair. You could vote against Hagel for libertarian reasons, you could vote against him for conservative reasons.”
With that, Paul said he still might “give the president the prerogative to choose his Cabinet,” and he wrapped the interview.
Four hours later, Paul returned to the Senate floor. Here was the actual vote that would make Hagel the next secretary of defense, and he needed only 51 votes to be confirmed—a fait accompli. One after another, Republicans who’d given Hagel an “aye” on cloture switched and voted “nay.” Their votes would allow Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and chairman of the Emergency Committee for Israel, to say that “the overwhelming majority of senators from one of the two major parties voted against confirming Mr. Hagel.”
Paul walked to the well of the Senate with a group of fellow Republicans. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who’d voted yes on cloture after Hagel answered his letters, voted against his confirmation. A grinning Sen. Cornyn gratefully shook his hand. Then Paul leaned over the well to announce his vote.
“Aye,” he said.
The final tally was 58-to-41, but no other senator voted this way. Hours earlier, the Emergency Committee for Israel had given me a tentative statement congratulating Paul for “a pro-Israel vote today.” They cancelled that statement, effective immediately.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.