Why is John Bolton, the mustachioed uber-hawk who played the wacky neighbor on The Independents, thinking of running for president? What about Peter King, the New York congressman and lapsed IRA fan who thinks journalists should be prosecuted for reporting the Snowden leaks? Or Lindsey Graham, John McCain's understudy in the Senate? None of these people have a serious shot at the Republican nomination. So why run?
Benjy Sarlin of MSNBC suggests an explanation: They're there to block Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator and likely presidential candidate who doesn't share their passion for a muscular, handsome foreign policy. They might not be able to take the presidential prize themselves, but they hope they can keep it from Paul by keeping a spotlight on his views about global affairs.
When Sarlin called the candidates to confirm his suspicions, two out of three conceded that Paul was on their minds. King told Sarlin that it was Paul who "really generated my concern"—not a surprise, since King's been saying words to that effect since last July. (He's wary about Ted Cruz too.) And Bolton
said he planned to force Paul to account for his "neo-isolationism" (a label Paul rejects) should they meet on the primary trail.
Graham is less eager to put himself so explicitly in the anti-Paul camp. Asked by msnbc what impact Paul's ambitions had on his decision to explore a run he responded: "Zero."
"It's all about my vision for the country and national security and economic security," Graham said.
Still, as one of Paul's top antagonists in the Senate, it's easy to imagine Graham taking a similar tack. He's derided Paul as part of an "isolationist movement in the party" and called his positions "to the left of Obama"—the ultimate GOP insult.
While I have no illusions that Paul's foreign policy ideas have taken over the Republican Party, this marks a significant shift. In the last two Republican races, the relatively libertarian antiwar voices—Ron Paul in 2008, Paul and Gary Johnson in 2012—were widely seen as marginal figures running to protest the party's direction. Now it's the most hard-core hawks who are jumping in just to make sure their views get a hearing. It's not enough, apparently, that pretty much every frontrunner except Rand Paul thinks the U.S. military should be even more active around the world. They want to make sure the subject is aired.
As Sarlin puts it,
The anti-Paul contingent all say they aren't worried his views on foreign policy are gaining ground with GOP voters. Since the Islamic State took over swaths of Iraq and Syria and began executing Western hostages, polls show Republicans have reverted to their Bush-era instinct towards aggressive counterterrorism abroad….The fear, rather, is that Paul could get the nomination despite his unconventional foreign policy views if the campaign, as it did in 2012, focuses largely on domestic affairs.
"Republicans are small government conservatives and so an ideological libertarian says a lot of things they agree with," Bolton said. "The consequences if you don't require the candidates to elaborate on their national security views [is that] somebody with a view that doesn't reflect the vast majority of the party might slip by."
If Paul gets remotely close to taking the nomination, you can expect the party establishment to wield weapons against him that are far more potent than King, Graham, Bolton, or even Bolton's 'stache. But if this is a sideshow, it's a notable sideshow. The hawks' anxieties are newsworthy in their own right.
Update: Daniel Larison comments:
The more that candidates like that are allowed to speak for the party's hawks, the easier it should be for Paul to present himself as a reasonable and necessary alternative. Since the impulse of many of the other hawks in the debate will be to express agreement with the hard-line no-hopers, the no-hopers' presence could also have the effect of dragging the more competitive hawkish candidates into adopting much more unpopular positions than they might otherwise take….
The hard-liner protest candidates may want to combat Paul and whatever it is they think he represents, but they will more than likely end up undermining candidates that agree with them on foreign policy. As so often happens in our foreign policy debates, the hard-liners haven't thought through the consequences of their plans here and could end up empowering the people that they are trying to oppose.