Polling shows that most Americans agree with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) when it comes to foreign policy. Much of the American public, who have endured years of deadly American military adventures overseas, believe that the United States should be less involved in the rest of the world's affairs. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that 47 percent of Americans believe that the United States should be "less active" in world affairs. In December, The Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations released a poll on Americans' attitudes towards foreign policy and found that Americans are opposed to intervention more than any time in the last half century.
These results should be good news for Paul, who is widely expected to run for president in 2016 and has made a name for himself as one of the GOP's most prominent non-interventionists since being sworn in back in 2011. On the intervention in Libya, the response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and the crises in Ukraine and Egypt, Paul has demonstrated that he is far less keen to get the United States involved in other countries' affairs than many of his Republican colleagues. Paul's positioning on foreign policy prompted Leon Hadar to write in The American Conservative that Paul should go on the offensive and hold public meetings across the U.S. focusing on foreign policy.
It's true polls suggest that if Paul were to hold the sort of meetings that Hadar mentions he would meet with many people who already agree with him. The problem for Paul is that while many Americans agree with Paul on foreign policy, many Americans do not view international affairs as the biggest problem facing the U.S. today.
In a Reason-Rupe poll released in December respondents were asked in their own words to answer the following: What would you say is the biggest problem facing the country today?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, very few of the respondents listed international affairs as the biggest problem. Sixteen percent of respondents said that jobs and wages were the biggest problem facing the United States, and 10 percent said that taxes, spending, and overreach were. Only 3 percent listed international affairs as the country's biggest problem.
Earlier this month Gallup polling asked respondents to describe America's most important problem. The results showed that only 4 percent of Americans think that "Foreign Aid/Focus Overseas" was America's most important problem. Only 1 percent felt the same way about "Wars/War (nonspecific)/fear of War."
Like other potential GOP 2016 contenders, Paul is anti-Obamacare, anti-excessive regulation, pro-life, and pro-Second Amendment. At the moment it looks like what would distinguish Paul from other contenders in a Republican primary are his positions on foreign policy (which very few Americans view as a priority) and his comparatively liberal stances on drug sentencing reform and the NSA's snooping.
However, there is a way that a non-interventionist foreign policy can be argued for in a way that will make it part of a discussion on Americans' primary concerns like spending and the economy, which 11 percent of respondents said was America's biggest problem: highlight the economic case for a non-interventionist foreign policy.
Paul has rightly pointed out that arming anti-Assad rebels or carrying out air strikes in Syria could lead to problematic outcomes, that our foreign aid policy towards Egypt is a mess, and that members of his own party should avoid Cold War attitudes amid the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. These are all valid points to make, but they don't directly address what polling suggests is among Americans' primary concerns.
Take a look at the 2013 federal budget. It's jaw dropping. Defense accounted for $626 billion of a $3.5 trillion budget, 3.8 percent of GDP. U.S. defense spending is shocking in isolation, but it is especially worrying when you compare it to the defense budgets of other nations. For example, in 2012 the U.S. accounted for 41 percent of global defense spending, which is especially astonishing when you consider that the U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world's population.
Reduction in defense spending is an area where many Republicans, supposedly the party of less government spending and limited government, are curiously reluctant to live up to their rhetoric. Even Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee, who is often portrayed as a fan of reckless spending cuts, proposed a budget last month that would increase defense spending by $273 billion over 10 years—more than President Obama called for.
If he runs for president in 2016 Paul will have the opportunity to argue for a non-interventionist foreign policy (which many Americans are sympathetic to) in part by making arguments related to government spending (which many Americans consider the most important issue facing the United States). This is especially important conisdering that Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie thinks that it's a problem that we're not as involved in world affairs as we used to be and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), another potential GOP 2016 contender, said at this year's CPAC that the U.S. is the only nation "capable of rallying and bringing together the free people on this planet to stand up to the spread of totalitarianism."
Although 2016 presidential campaigns have yet to (officially) begin, Paul has already been facing lazy accusations of "isolationism," which will almost certainly become more prominent once Paul makes his widely expected White House bid official. By emphasizing the economics of U.S. foreign policy, Paul will not only be able to ask his interventionist presidential contenders to justify involvement in the affiars of other countries, he will also be able to press them on how they can justify vast defense spending.