What if Sen. Rand Paul is forcing the most substantive debate of the Republican nominating contest so far and killing it at the same time?
On Sunday night, Paul took to the Senate floor to continue his fight against the government’s bulk collection of metadata. By any objective measure, he was raising important questions. The first was whether the government has gone too far in its fight against terrorists. Since Paul’s a constitutional conservative who has argued this ground before, it wasn’t surprising he made this case. In fact, it aligns with the central tenets of the conservative bloc of the Republican Party that believes that lawmakers should remain vigilant about ceding too much power to government. It was in keeping with William Buckley’s line about conservatives being the ones who stand athwart history and yell “stop.”
So far in the Republican primary process the national security debate has been thin: Obama is weak and the proper response is strength. Whether you agree with Paul’s national security positions or not, he has injected some complexity into the conversation that might force the debate into something more than a choice between “weak” and “strong.” Doing so will give voters a better window into the foreign policy views the candidates actually do hold, and presumably that would help voters make a better choice.
The problem for Paul is that, in a nearly half-hour–long speech on the Senate floor, his case may have been swallowed up by a claim he made near the end: “People here in town think I’m making a huge mistake. Some of them, I think, secretly want there to be an attack on the United States so they can blame it on me.”
Paul gave his opponents a chance to dismiss his arguments as nutty and to take umbrage while promoting just the worldview that Paul was trying to challenge. Immediately, he faced several charges: He was being thin-skinned (he turned a policy debate into a personal one), narcissistic (it’s not all about you, senator), and finally, that he had lost his bearings in the debate, which isn’t what you want in a president who will face tougher challenges than criticism from Senate colleagues.
Rick Santorum took the biggest swing:
You know Rand, this is not about you. I know some people get into politics and they get full of all the press clippings they get. But this is not about one person, this is about what is in the best interest of our country, and we have far too many politicians in Washington who think everything is about them. I can tell you. I get it. You get all this media chasing you around, you think you’re really important, you think you are the center of attention, but the bottom line is this is about the national security of our country, the men and women who have fought and died to keep our country safe, and we are putting American lives in jeopardy and that’s just not about a person.
As wise readers pointed out, it’s quite likely that if there were an attack during the period the Patriot Act was on pause, someone would blame Paul, even if the accusation was unfair. His efforts made it so that the law expired without being immediately replaced. This is different, however, than saying lawmakers were rooting for an attack. And, even if they were, it’s not really germane to Paul’s argument and smacked of late-night dorm-room desperation. It will not be listed in the examples of grace under pressure, which detracts from Paul’s larger and genuine claim to be someone who takes on unpopular fights in the service of his beliefs—a demonstration of the courage voters often say they want above all.
Paul’s Senate colleagues leveled two charges: He was lying about the nature of the surveillance program, and he was fundraising off the public fracas he was instigating. He wouldn’t be the first to have tried to raise money off of grandstanding on foreign policy, but by Monday morning, Paul was backing off the claim, saying it was the hyperbole that sometimes slips into political debate. The senator likes to paint in broad strokes. He once claimed that the majority in Washington wants to deploy ground troops as the answer to every ongoing conflict. Politicians are susceptible to bouts of hyperbole, but after too many, every human on the planet is going to get sick to their stomach of them. Or, to speak less hyperbolically, they’ll think you’re just crying wolf.
The Paul forces see this as a classic case of Washington versus the rest of America. Paul is advocating a position that has support out in the country, his advisers believe, and it only highlights how disconnected the Senate is from the real world. Other Republican strategists make the obvious case that it riles up Paul’s base and adds to his campaign coffers, which he needs.
Paul’s public fight and partial successes battling for his cause might bring in the group of nontraditional voters Paul hopes will give him a leg up in the Republican contests. But, while it might expand his chances in one area, it is going to create difficulties among traditional national security Republicans. Those voters are hearing a constant drumbeat from other Republicans that the world is more dangerous than ever and that Paul is weak on national defense. Hillary Clinton, they will argue, is to the right of Paul on foreign policy. For primary and caucus voters who care about national defense, this is going to make it harder to embrace Paul as the candidate who will ensure safety.
Rand Paul has done what Republican Party voters say they want: He has stood up for his principles. The question is whether in taking his stand he has weakened his platform.