Rand Paul’s presidential campaign, by many recent accounts, is sputtering. The candidate, according to The Atlantic’s Molly Ball, is “flailing.” His campaign, reports National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar, has been called a “disaster.”
These judgments, even if true, are provisional. Pretty much any candidate in the Republican pack is one killer debate performance, one strong poll result, one especially good fundraising report away from a narrative of resurgence.
But there is little question that the initial, ineffable appeal of the Paul campaign has faded. In March 2013, when Paul filibustered against the government’s possible use of Hellfire missiles to murder civilians in San Francisco cafes and Houston restaurants — this seemed to make sense to some people at the time — many conservatives were swept away. “His voice, once lonely,” wrote Noah Rothman, “grew in stature. … It was poetic. It was romantic.”
Compare this to Paul’s recent filibuster of the Patriot Act. The Senate gallery was staged with supporters wearing “Stand With Rand” T-shirts. Paul’s online campaign store offered a “filibuster starting pack” for $30, including a “spy blocker” for your computer’s video camera and a shirt reading “The NSA knows I bought this Rand Paul T-shirt.” Paul’s Senate colleagues found themselves dragged into the middle of an infomercial, And many were not pleased.
Once it was Mr. Smith goes to Washington. Now it is Mr. Smith uses Senate procedure to conduct a fundraising campaign on a national security issue that he distorts to serve his political interests.
The romance is gone. The bitterness and conspiratorial hints remain. Paul recently blamed the rise of the Islamic State on Republican “hawks.” Under pressure, Paul conceded, “I could have stated it better.” But this was a gaffe of excessive clarity. Paul’s foreign policy libertarianism is founded on the belief that an aggressively fought war against terrorism actually produces terrorism — that America has somehow earned the enmity it faces.
And Paul’s accusation goes further. “People here in town (Washington, D.C.) think I’m making a huge mistake,” he said on the Senate floor. “Some of them I think secretly want there to be an attack on the United States so they can blame it on me.”
Paul likes to present himself as a voice of reason and outreach. But he is prone to rhetorical recklessness. Which of Paul’s rivals, in this case, would be secretly pleased about the killing of Americans if it helped justify a political argument? Any names? Paul, by his account, is not only facing opponents but monsters.
According to Paul, it is “hawks” and “neocons” who “glory for war,” who “really think war’s always the answer.” Some, as we’ve seen, “secretly want there to be an attack on the United States.” Sen. John McCain wants “15 wars more.” Paul has accused former Vice President Dick Cheney of supporting the Iraq War in order to benefit his former employer, Halliburton. Paul’s charges are often nasty, often ad hominem, often involve the questioning of motives. In democratic discourse, this type of argument is a conversation stopper. How can you find agreement with scheming warmongers?
Paul sometimes apologizes, at least partially, for his sweeping hyperbole. But he falls into this habit frequently, and almost always on foreign policy matters. This reveals much about Paul’s sense of political calling. He presents himself as someone engaged in a quest against sinister forces — a quest to dismantle the national security state, in both commitments abroad and surveillance at home. And the main obstacles to this goal are not Democrats (Paul often shares foreign policy views with President Obama), they are pro-military Republicans.
Paul’s wink-and-nod primary strategy — winking toward his father’s libertarian base, nodding toward establishment foreign policy thinking — has collapsed. Paul was always more comfortable on the Snowden side of the national security ramparts. During the Patriot Act debate, by strategy or ideological compulsion, this showed. Limiting the reach and authority of American intelligence services — at a time of Chinese cyberaggression and online Islamist radicalization — would be a core mission of a Paul presidency.
Yet Paul succeeded, in part. Republican leaders in the House and Senate could not muster the votes to defend the Patriot Act in its original form, and had to accept a system that further restricts access to bulk data. The cost for Paul was to abandon the pretense of ideological moderation, and to embrace a rhetorically, and substantively, reckless course.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.