When I walked past the giant federal debt clock glaring in the lobby of Rand Paul’s office to interview the senator on the failure of the war in Afghanistan, I quickly realized he hasn’t changed. But the political environment around the libertarian-leaning Kentucky Republican sure has, for better and for worse.
When Paul rode the Tea Party wave into office almost a decade ago, he made his name in the Senate fighting for spending cuts and crusading alongside fellow fiscal conservatives against the mounting federal debt under former President Barack Obama. In 2020, he’s still fighting this fight, regularly introducing plans to balance the budget. But most of the Republican Party, sadly, is no longer with him.
Despite controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress from 2016 up until the 2018 midterms, the GOP nevertheless failed to repeal Obamacare, failed to cut spending, and oversaw the return of trillion-dollar deficits. Paul is now one of the lone dissenters still focusing on this issue.
But in another of Paul’s key policy issues, foreign policy, the GOP has increasingly come around to his side. While he was once in the minority among Republicans in criticizing the Obama administration’s unauthorized regime-change war in Libya — many other Republicans criticized Obama for not being hawkish enough on foreign policy — the anti-interventionist position is now mainstream in the GOP.
For that, Paul credits President Trump.
“No Republican or Democrat president said in my lifetime that ‘great nations don’t fight perpetual wars,’ like Trump said in the State of the Union a year ago,” the senator told me across the conference table in his office. “I think he truly believes that … and one thing Trump has done is he’s changed it and made it more acceptable for the things I’ve been saying all along. The GOP is no longer a party where you have to worry about being for less intervention. That’s the president’s position — and he says it in front of 25,000 people [at rallies] all across the country.”
He’s completely right that when it comes to Trump’s rhetoric, he’s been historically anti-war, remaking the Republican Party in 2016 by running against the failed war in Iraq and regularly striking an anti-interventionist chord in presidential addresses. His anti-interventionist rhetoric would have been unthinkable from a President John McCain or President Mitt Romney. Yet the actual results Trump has delivered are more complicated and decidedly less satisfactory for anti-war Republicans.
The senator and I had met to discuss the 18-year war in Afghanistan, in light of a Senate hearing Paul recently held calling attention to the issue after two more American soldiers died this month in the bloody conflict. I asked Paul about their deaths, and his tone instantly shifted.
“You know, I was there at Dover Air Force Base, and it’s the first time I’ve been there for some of our soldiers to come home, [the ones] killed in action, and it is a sad and somber affair,” he said. “I really think all these people who voted on it ought to be going to the funerals and seeing what it’s like and meeting the families. And I know many have, but it doesn’t seem to sink in for some.”
As far as ending the war in Afghanistan, Paul says, “The American public has been there for a long time. I mean, you have overwhelming numbers, and the polling shows that as far as coming home, but Congress really doesn’t represent the people very well on things and with foreign policy, they are not really representative at all.”
I pressed Paul on his strong support for Trump, seeing as, all the rhetoric aside, we’re more than three years into his presidency and still have troops in Afghanistan, Syria, and even Iraq. He responded with nuance.
“I think the president’s foreign policy is a mixed bag,” Paul said. He warned of the influence the hawkish “military establishment” has on the president, saying that the generals and military officials advising the president are part of what’s keeping him from ending these conflicts. The senator also said the influence of prominent “neoconservative” Republicans such as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney has led the president astray, saying they “deserve a lot of the blame.”
Still, Paul struck an optimistic chord: “I think the [anti-war] voices are getting louder and I think our best chance to [end the war in Afghanistan] is under this president.”
The senator also argued that while Trump may not have followed through completely on withdrawal from the Middle East — Paul called Trump’s decision to send more troops to Saudi Arabia “a huge disaster” — the president’s restraint has nonetheless manifested itself in other ways.
He cited the way Trump has seemingly deescalated tensions with Iran and successfully navigated us down from the brink of yet another disastrous Middle East war, arguing that “a Bush or Hillary Clinton would have bombed the crap out of Iran immediately,” and estimating that any neoconservative Republican president would have launched an all-out war with Iran in response to recent tensions.
We briefly discussed the 2020 Democratic field, and how Paul thinks the most prominent liberal presidential candidates would fare as commander in chief. He dismissed Joe Biden as “part of the [hawkish] establishment” but added that “I actually don’t think he’s really got a chance of winning anyway.” The senator noted that “Bernie [Sanders] has been pretty good on [foreign policy], and I’ve sided with him on a lot of war issues.”
I eventually hinted at whether Paul maintains presidential ambitions or is eyeing 2024 and didn’t get the denial I was expecting.
“I don’t say absolutely no because I think it depends on the circumstances,” the senator said. “[We need to see] what goes on between now and then … it would take something for me to believe that the libertarian part of the Republican Party is bigger. The libertarian movement is a mixture of people, and they’re not all in the Republican primary. It may be a small number of the Republican primary, but it may include more independents and maybe some Democrats.”
If the rise of Trump in 2016 showed us anything, it’s that mobilizing such a coalition isn’t impossible.
Author: Brad Polumbo
Source: Washington Examiner: Exclusive: Rand Paul talks ‘mixed bag’ Trump foreign policy and mulls 2024 presidential bid