Until very recently, Rand Paul’s project of insinuating himself comfortably within the Republican Party, and positioning himself as a plausible presidential nominee, had gone along with remarkable ease. Yes, the author of his campaign book turned out to be an unreconstructed neo-Confederate. That was a speed bump. (Who among us has not entrusted the explication of his worldview to a man who has cheered on the assassination of President Lincoln?) Paul had staged a masterful piece of political theater with his marathon Senate speech denouncing the Obama administration’s drone policy. He has assembled a top-tier campaign apparatus. As recently as January, The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart tabbed him the Party’s 2016 frontrunner.
But now the war to stop Paul has been joined. Paul may overcome the resistance, or he may not. What the struggle shows is the sheer audacity of his project. It is hard to think of a candidate with ideas as heterodox as those Paul has successfully implanted within a major party. Political parties are vast conglomerations that move glacially across the ideological spectrum. Paul is attempting an immediate, totalistic transformation of Republican foreign policy.
Paul has seized upon a moment of flux and confusion that is not uncommon for a party out of power. Republican anti-interventionism flowered briefly under the Clinton presidency, and a similar movement has sprung up under President Obama. Partisans on both sides distrust the use of power far more when they loathe the president who is using it. The drone debate displayed Paul under optimal conditions, when he could harness the fear coursing through the right — which had previously expressed itself in the form of such paranoid conceptions as death panels, FEMA camps, and feverish muttering about the abnegation of the Constitution — into the service of his foreign policy worldview.
At the same time, the Party’s ideological geography has not changed nearly as much as it may have appeared. Hawks remain firmly in control of the commanding heights. The neoconservatism of the Bush administration may have run aground in Iraq, but conservative discontent with Bush mostly dissolved into diffuse complaints about big government and overspending. The Republican candidates that have followed Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney, both ran as unapologetic hawks. (Romney titled his campaign biography No Apology.) The House Republican budget proposes a $483 billion increase in military spending over the next decade. Bush-era foreign-policymaking retains enough prestige within the Party that the cachet and intellectual tutelage of Don Rumsfeld is still in demand. As Robert Costa reported recently, Rumsfeld “has been courted by several potential candidates and plans to meet with [Ted] Cruz.” Yes — there is a competition to woo one of the most flamboyantly disastrous policymakers in the history of the United States.
Paul has approached American politics from the diametric pole. In 2009, Alex Jones, asked him, “You're basically what I would call a chip off the old block. Your policies are basically identical to your father, correct?” To which Paul replied, "I'd say we'd be very very similar. We might present the message sometimes differently ... I think in some ways the message has to be broadened and made more appealing to the entire Republican electorate because you have to win a primary.”
Two things stand out about this exchange. The first is that Paul was talking to Alex Jones at all. Jones is a full-out conspiracy theorist — including, but by no means limited to, being a 9/11 Truther. (The full derangement of Jones’s worldview is difficult to summarize; Michelle Goldberg’s 2009 profile captures it.) Paul has actually continued to speak with Jones congenially.
The second noteworthy thing about this exchange was that Paul was openly describing his own infiltration plot. Paul has since worked to carefully distance himself from his father, delivering speeches at comfortably orthodox Republican venues like the Heritage Foundation, where he represented his thinking as just a slight tweak on the good old Republican line. "I am a realist, not a neoconservative, nor an isolationist," he declared. “Reagan’s foreign policy was much closer to what I am advocating than what we have today.” Why would anybody believe him when he had already told Jones, in a you-do-know-people-can-hear-the-radio moment, that he did subscribe to his father’s views but planned to smuggle them into the Party under a more appealing package?
It is acceptable, and in some ways politically beneficial, for a Republican candidate to harbor irrational suspicions about Barack Obama. Harboring irrational suspicions about Republicans is another thing. Earlier this week, David Corn, who appears to possess incriminating video of everybody in America, produced videos of Paul in 2008 and 2009, in which he attributed Dick Cheney’s support for the Iraq invasion to his connections to Halliburton. “[Y]ou know, a couple hundred million dollars later Dick Cheney earns from Halliburton, he comes back into government. Now Halliburton's got a billion-dollar no-bid contract in Iraq,” Paul mused in 2008. And, “Dick Cheney then goes to work for Halliburton. Makes hundreds of millions of dollars, their CEO. Next thing you know, he's back in government and it's a good idea to go into Iraq,” he said in 2009.
The best you can say about Paul’s account of Cheney is that it’s incomplete and laden with insinuation. Paul implies, without quite stating, that Cheney harbored a financial conflict of interest. In fact, he had fully divested himself from Halliburton. He did not make a dime from the war. Likewise, Paul dwells on the strange change of heart that Cheney underwent from the 1990s, when he still defended George H.W. Bush’s decision not to invade Iraq, to his time in the second Bush administration. It seems downright weird to attribute the change to working at Halliburton rather than, I don’t know, 9/11. Granted, 9/11 may have been a substantively terrible reason to invade Iraq. But it’s pretty obvious that 9/11 freaked a lot of people out and made them irrationally aggressive. It’s much, much harder to imagine that Cheney’s time at Halliburton made him dream longingly of the day when he could launch a major occupation that would throw off lucrative contracting work.
And I don’t like Dick Cheney! At all!
Republicans, however, very much do. If you’re running for the Republican presidential nomination, implying that one of the Party’s revered elder statesmen started a war due to hidden pecuniary motives is not cool.
The outlines of the backlash against Paul have already taken shape. Hawkish Republicans have subjected him to close scrutiny. (It was the neoconservative Washington Free Beacon that exposed Paul’s ties to the “Southern Avenger.”) Billionaire Republican financier Sheldon Adelson has vowed to spend millions stopping Paul from obtaining the nomination.
Corn’s revelation has given them a new way in, displaying Paul not merely as an ideological radical but as a partisan enemy. There is probably more where that video came from, too. It’s merely one small window into the reality that Paul spent his entire pre-2010 career in the world of Ron Paul and Alex Jones, in which the foreign policy of George W. Bush was not just bungled or misguided but the manifestation of a sinister conspiracy. Paul has developed shrewd instincts and has obvious political talent. He may or may not successfully finesse the staggeringly large gulf between his worldview and that of the Party he is trying to take over. But stopping people like Paul from capturing the nomination is the reason Party Establishments exist.