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Opinion

Why the Bowe Bergdahl furor is bad news for Rand Paul

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Philip Klein,National Security,Rand Paul,Guantanamo Bay,Foreign Policy,Bowe Bergdahl

By releasing five Taliban commanders from Guantanamo Bay prison in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, President Obama has launched a furor on the right.

The Bergdahl news comes along with a number of other developments - such as Obama's doomed diplomacy with Iran, an anti-war speech at West Point, and Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggression in Ukraine - that have awakened national security conservatives. This is bad news for Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and his presidential ambitions.

As I’ve noted on a number of occasions, assuming he runs, Paul’s challenge as a presidential candidate will be to thread the needle between his father’s core supporters, who are passionate non-interventionists, and the broader Republican electorate, which favors a more muscular foreign policy posture. Paul is a much smoother and careful politician than his father, and less prone to make bombastic statements that alienate most conservative voters. But he’s also benefited from the fact that his appearance on the national scene came at a time when domestic policy issues have been much more dominant, and enough of a distance had passed from the Sept. 11 attacks so that the conservative base was less animated by national security.

In many cases, decisions by the Obama administration also made it easier for Paul to stake out positions that threaded the needle. In Libya and Syria, for instance, there was a debate among national security conservatives as to whether intervening was a good idea, with many hawkish conservatives arguing that it would only benefit more Islamist extremists.

To the extent, however, that national security issues come to dominate the conversation on the right, and the sentiment is that that Obama is another Jimmy Carter, Republicans will likely nominate a candidate who can speak to this zeitgeist.

Conservatives who panned Obama's West Point speech — an assault on straw men aimed at putting Obama in the reasonable middle between isolationism and perpetual war - aren't exactly craving a Republican candidate who can deliver an opposing lecture touting the virtues of non-interventionism.

A lot can change between now and the Republican primary season, but as I wrote in my column, Obama is now turning his interests to foreign policy now that his legislative agenda has no chance in Congress and he's no longer constrained by reelection ambitions. So, national security issues are more likely to play a role in the Republican debates starting next year.

Paul is clearly aware of this and trying to adapt his rhetoric to this reality. On Fox this week Paul said if the Taliban commanders released were found to be plotting a terrorist attack, “there would be a drone with their name on it.” But such rhetoric isn’t his strong suit.

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