Sen. Rand Paul has engaged in a series of political contortions in recent months to reframe his foreign policy as Reaganesque, all but acknowledging that a more openly libertarian approach could derail his presidential aspirations.
To his admirers, the moves show the Kentucky Republican is a thoughtful politician who is willing to adjust as he figures out how to apply his underlying philosophy to the diverse array of challenges the U.S. faces around the world.
But to his critics, Paul is attempting to cloak his foreign policy in a naked ploy to win over traditional Republican voters -- particularly in the early primary states -- without alienating his libertarian base or disowning past comments.
“Trying to bridge his early statements into some sort of Ronald Reaganesque foreign policy is going to create more problems for him because it's just not believable,” said Richard Grenell, a Republican former diplomat who advised GOP nominee Mitt Romney on foreign policy during the 2012 campaign.
“It would be much better for Rand Paul — it would make more sense — if he just admitted he’s learning more about foreign policy and that America has a stronger role to play in the world,” Grenell added.
Campaigning extensively for his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, in 2012, Rand Paul experienced first hand how an isolationist foreign policy can repel GOP primary voters otherwise open to the Paul brand of economic libertarianism. Determined not to suffer a similar fate in a 2016, Paul has moved aggressively to claim the foreign policy lineage of President Reagan, whose muscular internationalism and commitment to U.S. military superiority still sets the standard for Republican candidates.
Paul has been riding high in initial GOP presidential primary polling, and all of the frontrunners must navigate obstacles to the nomination.
Foreign policy is Paul’s big and possibly defining challenge. Absent a compete evolution, he must either sell Republican voters on a philosophy that is libertarian at its core, or convince them that he is the true heir to the Reagan approach they prefer. Both are considered tall, if not impossible orders to fill.
Paul has been critical of U.S. military action overseas and skeptical of both the permanent stationing of troops around the world and the effectiveness of foreign aid to countries like Egypt. Paul has often argued that such intervention invites more harm than good. He opposed the military action in Libya that toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi and has criticized the military targeting of Islamic extremists by unmanned drone strikes.
By contrast, Reagan took office at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and amid the Iranian hostage crisis and questions about U.S. global strength. He ordered a massive military and nuclear weapons build-up and positioned the U.S. as a world leader in battling with communist, totalitarian threats, rattling long-time foreign policy thinkers of his era with his labeling of the USSR as the "evil empire" and describing his strategy this way: "We win, they lose."
Paul also has to deal with a record of past statements that, while short, could prove troublesome.
He Halliburton/">once accused Dick Cheney of supporting the invasion of Iraq because it stood to enrich Halliburton, the company he led before becoming vice president. More recently, Paul urged against exerting U.S. influence in Syria or Ukraine. But later, in an op-ed for Time magazine he called for a tougher American response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In an op-ed published on Breitbart.com, Paul affirmed Reagan's belief in U.S. military superiority and “peace through strength.”
Paul, 51, never ran for, or held, public office before being elected to the Senate in 2010. Whether political maneuvering or philosophical adjustment, Paul has been thinking about the political hurdle foreign policy could present in his White House bid since 2012, when he regularly campaigned in front of packed crowds as a surrogate for his father. Back then, Paul lamented that his father's foreign policy views were hampering the elder Paul's prospects.
"I think he attracts a lot of people, actually, with the non-interventionist foreign policy. And then there are some who like it, but feel like, 'Well gosh, I still want somebody who cares that Iran might get nuclear weapons,'” Paul told Roll Call two years ago while stumping for his father in New Hampshire. During a brief interview on Wednesday, Paul stood by the comparison of his foreign policy to Reagan's, saying that his views are evolving.
“I try to make sure people know what my foreign policy is, and my foreign policy is something that’s a gradual thing that we both come to grips with and present in the sense that, three years ago I was an ophthalmologist and didn’t have a foreign policy,” Paul told the Washington Examiner. “Foreign policy depends on the events as they are, so you really have to judge each instance of what’s going on around the world by events.”
In defending the assertion that his foreign policy outlook is similar to Reagan's, Paul added: “I would probably put Reagan more in line with foreign policy realism -- with Eisenhower, with the first George Bush, with Reagan being sort of a continuum rather than Reagan being an outlier.” Claiming Reagan's legacy is old hat in modern GOP politics. However, Paul's description of the conservative icon's foreign policy is not universally held.
Paul's critics have lauded the senator for fueling an internal GOP debate on foreign policy and national security that many conservatives believe was overdue for the Republican Party more than a quarter century after Reagan left office. They concede that in a time of budgetary pressures and war weariness, Republicans need to update their approach to fit current conditions and atmospherics. They dismiss suggestions that the party should alter the basic framework of its Reagan-driven philosophy.
For Paul, the question is whether his foreign policy meets the minimum of acceptability in the early nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Paul has polled well in New Hampshire, whose motto is “Live Free or Die,” and he has a strong base in Nevada that was built by his father. But in defense-oriented South Carolina, a Paul foreign policy defined by libertarianism could prove problematic. That is true even in New Hampshire.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is perhaps the most vocal proponent among the 2016 contenders of maintaining the aggressive U.S. foreign policy that has defined his party since Reagan won the presidency in 1980. And, according to a New Hampshire GOP operative who attended Rubio's May 9 keynote address to a gathering of the Rockingham County Republicans, Rubio received some of his most enthusiastic crowd response “when he articulated a more muscular American foreign policy.”
Hogan Gidley, the former executive director of the South Carolina GOP who advised Rick Santorum in the 2012 GOP primary, said Paul was smart to move to define his foreign policy this early. The Palmetto State has a strong Tea Party presence, and Gidley said war weariness in the aftermath of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts has opened the door wider to a candidate like Paul than it might be otherwise.
But among the key early primary states, South Carolina’s GOP electorate skews older and is probably the most interested in foreign policy and military issues and steeped in the Reagan tradition. It’s here where Paul’s effort to build mainstream acceptance for his unique political brand, and where his attempt to recast his foreign policy, could be tested the most.
“He’s got two rebrands going on: his own and Reagan’s. I don’t know if he can do both,” Gidley said. “If anyone comes across, or is perceived, as weak on foreign policy, then that is going to hurt them.”