The junior senator from Kentucky drives his colleagues nuts. They don’t like Rand Paul or his positions on domestic spying and international adventurism. Arizona’s John McCain warns that Mr. Paul would be “the worst possible [Republican presidential] candidate of the 20 or so [who] are running” because of his positions on these issues and he admitted that choosing between his GOP colleague and Hillary Rodham Clinton would be “tough.” Mr. McCain’s hostility is nothing new; last year his daughter Meghan told a television interviewer that Mr. McCain “hates” Mr. Paul and assumed that the feeling is mutual.
But Mr. McCain’s views on the Kentuckian are shared by many of his colleagues. It’s no surprise that South Carolina’s Sen. Lindsey Graham, who strives to be more McCain than Mr. McCain agrees with his colleague from Arizona, but as the debate over extension of controversial USA Patriot Act provisions were up for renewal or reform, other Republican senators joined the fray, denouncing Mr. Paul, his arguments and his motives. Some believed Mr. Paul was grandstanding and, shockingly, tried to shout him down as he spoke on the Senate floor. Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana attacked him by name and questioned not just his positions and judgment, but his motives.
The vehemence of these attacks could lead one to conclude that Mr. Paul is at least as unpopular among his fellow senators as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Mr. Cruz is roundly disliked for his manner and refusal to “play by the rules,” his perceived arrogance, and his willingness to draw stark contrasts with those within the GOP he sees as too wimpish to stand with him in his battles for conservatism. His tactics and perhaps his personality upset them. This was deeper, however, and more serious. Mr. Cruz challenges the will and tactics of his colleagues, while Mr. Paul challenges the merits of the policies to which they are so firmly wedded.
Mr. Paul isn’t always right and it is possible to disagree with much that he says, but the way colleagues and the Republican establishment have set about demonizing him is remarkable. His critique of America’s foreign and defense policies may not be shared by many within the GOP these days and he may sometimes go too far, but it deserves serious consideration. Men and women interested in national security, individual freedom and the views of the Founders should not so cavalierly reject views as frivolous that were until Sept. 11 shared by millions of Americans of both parties. To react as they did reflects the degree to which a lockstep mindset has come to dominate Republican thinking over the last decade.
Whether Mr. Paul would make a great president is beside the point; his views fall squarely within what until recently most Republican and independent analysts would describe as the conservative mainstream. Conservatism has from the beginning included a strong measure of libertarianism along with a concern for traditional values and a strong national defense. As a candidate in 2000, George W. Bush argued for a foreign policy more akin to Mr. Paul’s beliefs than to the international adventurism advocated by the Bill Kristols, John McCains and Lindsey Grahams of the world. He opposed what was then called “nation-building” and the desire to remake the world in our own image.
Mr. Bush’s view changed for good or ill following the attack on the World Trade Center and his decision to go after Saddam Hussein. The neoconservatives were in the saddle at last and provided the argument that committed us to remaking the Middle East and possibly the world in our own image. We were, we were told at the time, the sole standing superpower and as the hegemon we had it within our power to create a new, more peaceful and democratic world. The meld of realism and idealism that motivated the late Ronald Reagan was out and a new crusader state was born. The concept of U.S. national interests was stretched beyond any rational meaning with the argument that “democracies don’t go to war with democracies,” so rebuilding the world in our own image was seen as our ultimate national interest.
Even if one accepted this definition of the national interest, America took on more than we could possibly handle. The result is a generation of young Americans who have never known peace; a decade in which thousands of our best have died or been maimed with little to show for their sacrifices, our enemies have multiplied, and the national debt has skyrocketed. Rand Paul may represent an extreme overreaction to those who would intervene everywhere and on any pretext, but that doesn’t make him a “wacko bird” any more than the Arizonan who called him one.
What the Republican Party and the nation need rather than name-calling is a calm and reasoned discussion of how we can best protect our nation, respond to challenges abroad, and develop a strategy that will accomplish these goals without either withdrawing from the world, occupying it or bankrupting ourselves.
• David A. Keene is Opinion editor of The Washington Times.