If there were any lingering doubts that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is still looked askance as a potential commander-in-chief by many within his own party, they were dispelled over the weekend by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a leading defense hawk and a possible presidential candidate himself.
Graham, appearing on the CBS News program Face the Nation, said President Obama extracted a bad tentative deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program because the Iranians “do not fear or respect him.” The best deal would come with a new president, he added. “Hillary Clinton would do better,” Graham said of the almost certain Democratic presidential nominee next year. “I think everybody on our side except maybe Rand Paul could do better.”
Ever since he began making sounds about a possible presidential campaign two years ago, Paul has been saddled with the image of an isolationist like his famous libertarian father, former House member and presidential candidate Ron Paul of Texas.
His calls for cuts in the defense budget and warnings against further military entanglements in the Middle East did not go down well with defense hawks like Graham and Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ), who were clamoring for more aggressive U.S. intervention against Islamic terrorists in Iraq and Syria.
The junior senator from Kentucky has struggled to change that image. And as he prepares to formally announce his candidacy for president on Tuesday in Louisville, Paul has hardened his foreign policy rhetoric and cast several votes to try to burnish his bona fides among defense and foreign policy hardliners on Capitol Hill along with conservative groups, journalists and intelligentsia.
Regardless of how hard he has tried to straddle the libertarian and conservative divide in his party, many remain suspicious of precisely where he stands on key defense and foreign policy issues. As The Washington Post noted today, Paul is a candidate who has “turned fuzzy — having trimmed his positions and rhetoric so much that it’s unclear what kind of Republican he will present himself as when he takes the stage.”
Paul's greatest disadvantage is the perception that he is less hawkish than most Republican activists desire in a president, University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato said on Monday.
“He's trying to change that image — but of course, doing so will cost him some of his backing among libertarians,” Sabato said. “This may already be happening. And Paul is modifying his once more-libertarian views on social issues, too. He's still more attractive to many young Republicans — possibly derived from lingering support for his father — but it doesn't take much to disillusion young idealists.
Paul’s biggest challenge has been in defining his stance on defense. Late last month, Paul offered an amendment to the Senate Republicans’ fiscal 2016 budget increasing defense spending by $190 billion over the next two years. Paul’s proposed 16 percent increase marked a stunning contrast with his 2011 plan for slashing the defense budget and scaling back the country’s overseas presence. But in a gesture to fiscal conservatives, Paul stipulated that his proposed increase in Pentagon spending be offset by cuts in foreign aid and other programs.
Paul was trying at once to be a defense hawk and a fiscal conservative bent on reducing the size of government. His proposal calls for offsetting reductions in funding for aid to foreign governments and climate change research. In addition, it also calls for slashing the budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency, Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Education.
The amendment failed.
Paul has frequently voiced skepticism about U.S. foreign policy. Stung by repeated attacks on his isolationist stands on military and foreign policy matters, Paul reluctantly bought into the Obama administration’s airstrikes against ISIS jihadists in Iraq and Syria late last year and even argued that Congress should formally declare war.
He then led an unsuccessful effort in December to limit the scope of U.S. warfare in the Middle East. And he has criticized the Obama administration’s moves with respect to the Syrian civil war.
“I think our involvement in the Syrian civil war has led to more instability and has allowed the rise of ISIS,” Paul said, citing actions taken that he said undermined the ability of Syrian President Bashar al- Assad to fight the terrorists. Paul added that he sees no good choices, discounting the idea of a moderate opposition rising up. “I think it’s either ISIS or Assad,” he said.
Paul has yet to comment on the tentative agreement reached last week in Switzerland between the U.S., Iran and five other countries to limit Iran’s nuclear program for 15 years in exchange for lifting economic sanctions against Tehran, although other presidential aspirants have offered their criticisms.
However, Paul did join 46 other Republican senators in signing a recent letter to the Iranian leaders warning them that any deal struck with the Obama administration could be rescinded by the next administration — assuming the Republicans take back the White House.
Paul has done other things to try to broaden his appeal. For the past two years, the Tea Party darling has been reaching out to African-American audiences and other minorities. He has spoken at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., the Detroit Economic Club to a gathering of African American business leaders, and the National Urban League in Cincinnati.
Since raising a furor during his 2010 Senate campaign by questioning the section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting private businesses from discriminating based on race, Paul has evolved into a born-again advocate for minorities’ rights. He rails against the injustice of federal drug sentencing laws, favors restoring the voting rights for some non-violent convicts, highlights inequality in education, champions inner-city economic revival and decries pernicious NSA snooping that violates Americans’ privacy.
As he prepares to follow Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in formally announcing his candidacy, Paul is very much in the middle of the pack of contenders, along with Cruz, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and physician Ben Carson.
According to Real Clear Politics, a cumulative average of 8.7 percent of voters say they would support Paul for president.
“The best argument Rand Paul has in a GOP primary is that he's been reaching out to minorities and young people and Silicon Valley in a way that makes it at least a bit easier for a Republican to capture a general election for president,” said Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst. “The current GOP coalition has to be expanded if the party is going to start winning again. Maybe Paul's efforts will work and maybe not, but unlike some, at least he's trying.”
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