Can Rand Paul, a defeated presidential candidate, reclaim the power of reshaping the Republican Party's foreign policy commitments from his seat in the Senate?
Daniel McCarthy of American Conservative, long an intelligent watcher of the Pauls' long march through the GOP (he worked briefly for Ron Paul's 2008 campaign) is hopeful in a long, educated take on the topic, optimistically titled "Rand Paul's Fall and Rise."
McCarthy explains some Republican Party history, showing how without any willed image of being dovish or reluctant to use or defend American power, the Party's executives from Eisenhower through Reagan were not quick to start wars or refuse diplomacy with at least our powerful adversaries. (Nixon's record as very slow to actually end hostilities in Vietnam, which McCarthy avoids, complicates this picture somewhat, but the GOP at least didn't really start the problem there.)
But the GOP foreign policy brand's meaning has been changed by George W. Bush to one of feckless bellicosity without much intelligent worry about effectiveness or cost.
While the leading two Republican candidates this time around were willing to at least admit that the lengthy Iraq invasion and occupation was a mistake, that belief doesn't seem to settle on any coherent Paulian sense of the general foolishness of going overseas seeking wasps' nests to stick our hands in, or a coherent sense of constitutional or fiscal limits on the role of the U.S. military, or Ron Paul forbid, the idea that sometimes we actually are plain misbehaving when we wage war overseas. Bellicosity, rather than intelligent disengagement, as a default mood remains dominant.
McCarthy sums up Sen. Paul's mission moving forward if he wants to be his Party's foreign policy conscience:
Rand Paul's task, and that of a new generation of Republican realists, is to go further—to not only reveal the flaws of their party's foreign policy but to work out a practical alternative. That task comes before winning the White House, and it has to begin on two fronts: one involves devising and articulating policies to strengthen American security through greater restraint—rather than weakening that security by touching off conflagrations around the world—and the other involves building the networks and institutions to support a return to conservative realism. The materials for creating a post-neoconservative center-right are already available. Talented young conservatives—not least among evangelicals—are clear-eyed about the disasters of the Bush years, and they dearly wish to find an alternative. A leader has to provide one—which is what Rand Paul, or someone like him, must do.
What McCarthy says makes sense, if somewhat tautologically: to shift from just one guy to a leader Rand Paul needs to convince people that he's right that American security can come with American restraint, and he has to get people and institutions other than just himself and his team promoting and practicing those ideas.
To get a full circle picture of what Rand Paul and the foreign policy thinkers around him mean by a new foreign policy conservative realism, check out my July 2015 profile of Paul's foreign policy ideas and team.
That article concluded that unlike the clarity of Ron Paul's anti-empire stance, Sen. Paul's foreign policy commitments couldn't always help you predict exactly when and where he'd see the flexing of American muscle overseas, or resistance to diplomacy with our perceived foes, as the conservative realist thing to do.
Such history lessons as McCarthy provides are interesting, but are they telling about the present and future?
That depends on the Party as represented by its voters, its congresspersons, or its president, caring much or feeling bound in any way by the Party's history, either distant or near. Political or cultural historians can intelligently note patterns and influences whose importance might be muted by the people who actually are going forward making new political and cultural history not knowing or caring much about the history.
It's risky to make any guesses about the Republican Party's near future without considering the Donald Trump factor, a name McCarthy does not drop in his thoughts about the Party's foreign policy future. What kind of a foreign policy might a President Trump want, or try to demand, from his partisans in the House and Senate?
Knowing the answer to that requires knowing a lot of things about how Trump would govern that I can't pretend to know. Lacking core ideological convictions that make sense to political intellectuals, does he at least have core attitudes? And would the attitude that foreign invasions can be costly mistakes, or the attitude that America must "win," dominate a Trump administration?
Will a President Trump still feel the need to reflect his sense of his fans' feelings back to them, and will that sense be a "what's in it for us"? attitude about intervention? Or a "let's get our enemies who are keeping us from winning" attitude? Or will Trump just snatch the power and influence the past decades of executive power grabs when it comes to foreign policy make available to him, and do whatever he wants and dare Congress or the people to stop him?
Non-interventionist libertarians have tried to make much of Trump's winning willingness to call out past interventions as obvious mistakes and to mock and deride the leaders who pushed us into them, and to question the notion that U.S. force must always weigh on Israel's side in any conflict.
But Trump's more than occasional references to the vital importance of "winning" and not being restricted to different rules than ISIS and to making sure we profit from interventions inspire no confidence he represents some supposed ancient American populist imperative to take care of our own patch of land and let the rest of the world take care of itself.
Decades of constant intervention, and the fact that on occasion extranational forces or people inspired from them actually do harm Americans (rare occasion, but we have a long, scared memory) make following the will of the people—especially a people pretty disconnected because of endless deficit spending and lack of a draft from the real costs of intervention—no strong restriction on an overbearing foreign policy.
We are a quiet coiled snake keeping to ourselves until we aren't anymore, and that has happened an awful lot to this supposed keep-to-itself coiled snake, and we seem to mostly settle in at least for a few years to cheer any war that our political elites tell us is necessary. And a President Trump would suddenly be our newest and most elite of political elites.
So, a "conservative realist" Sen. Paul may have something of an ally in a President Trump. But maybe not. And because of all the willing ceding of foreign policy authority, a giveaway that Paul has wonderfully decried for years now, from the legislative to the executive, all Paul may have in the end is the bully pulpit of the Senate seat from Kentucky, up against a president who knows from bullying.