It’s understandable when politicians are reluctant to change their positions. No one wants to be labeled a “flip-flopper,” especially those who want to present themselves to the public as a steadfast leader who sticks to principles, no matter what.
That said, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has a problem. Actually, he has two: he’s taken provocative positions that may stunt his ambitions and he refuses to say he’s changed his mind.
The Kentucky Republican’s instinct to attack when confronted with difficult questions is unfortunate. When Paul was caught repeatedly plagiarizing, for example, presenting others’ work as his own, the senator could have blamed sloppy staff work and vowed to do better in the future. Instead, he tried to change the meaning of the word “plagiarism” and raised the prospect of challenging journalists to duels.
When Paul was reminded of his objections to parts of the Civil Rights Act, he could have explained the evolution in his thinking. Instead, the GOP senator wants to pretend he’s been consistent, even though he hasn’t, and lashes out at those who point to reality.
All of which leads us to yesterday’s report from Yahoo News’ Chris Moody on Paul and U.S. support for Israel.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul on Monday denied that he once supported ending federal aid to Israel – an idea he proposed as recently as 2011.“I haven’t really proposed that in the past,” Paul told Yahoo News when asked if he still thought the U.S. should phase out aid to Israel, which has been battling Hamas in Gaza for weeks. “We’ve never had a legislative proposal to do that. You can mistake my position, but then I’ll answer the question. That has not been a position – a legislative position – we have introduced to phase out or get rid of Israel’s aid. That’s the answer to that question. Israel has always been a strong ally of ours and I appreciate that. I voted just this week to give money – more money – to the Iron Dome, so don’t mischaracterize my position on Israel.”
This is genuinely bizarre. In 2011, as a U.S. senator, Paul did an on-air interview with ABC in which he said he wants to be “known as a friend of Israel, but not with money you don’t have.” Specifically on the subject of federal aid to Israel, the Kentucky Republican said, “We can’t just borrow from our kids’ future and give it to countries, even if they are our friends…. I think they’re an important ally, but I also think that [Israel’s] per capita income is greater than probably three-fourths of the rest of the world. Should we be giving free money or welfare to a wealthy nation? I don’t think so.”
Paul’s position now appears to be that these public comments no longer count.
The senator could take this opportunity to explain how and why his position has changed. Maybe he could say he’s learned more about foreign policy over the last few years and this knowledge has caused him to reevaluate some of his previous positions. Perhaps he could explain the value of policymakers changing their minds when confronted with more information.
But not Rand Paul. No, that would be too easy. Instead we see a senator who gets annoyed with journalists who point to reality. Indeed, in this case, Paul believes that since he didn’t literally introduce legislation to cut off U.S. aid to Israel, then what he said can’t be used against him.
Let’s make this plain for the senator so there’s no lingering confusion: when Rand Paul publicly stated his position on the issue, that became – wait for it – his position on the issue.
What’s more, the senator didn’t misspeak in 2011, accidentally saying what he didn’t mean. On the contrary, as Dave Weigel noted, Rand Paul repeatedly touted his position, reiterating it as recently as 2013.
Going forward, he effectively has two options: (1) stick to his beliefs and defend them on the merits; or (2) take a different position and explain why he changed his mind.
The senator, for reasons that don’t make any sense, seems eager to pursue a third option: pretend his previous position was never his position and hope we’ve all lost the ability to use search engines.
Or as the Yahoo News report concluded: “It’s one thing for a politician to admit that his views have changed on an issue and an entirely other thing to say that he never held the position at all.”
Update: I heard from the senator’s office this afternoon, which issued a statement. Here’s Paul’s message in its entirety:
“Senator Rand Paul has never proposed any legislation that targeted Israel’s aid and just last week voted to continue and increase funding to the State of Israel. Sen. Paul is a strong supporter of the Jewish state of Israel. In 2011, Sen. Paul proposed a budget resolution that did not include certain foreign assistance programs in an effort to balance the budget in five years.Subsequent budget proposals made by Sen. Paul have included up to $5 billion for foreign assistance to account for U.S.-Israel security interests.Sen. Paul’s position was exactly what Prime Minister Netanyahu said to Congress on July 10, 1996 and May 24, 2011 – Israel will be better off when it does not have to count on anyone else for its protection.Sen. Paul has attempted several times this year to pass the Stand with Israel Act. The bill would cut off the flow of U.S. taxpayer dollars to the Palestinian Authority if it were allied with Hamas. Last month, he issued a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee requesting committee action on the Stand with Israel Act.”
As best as I can tell, all of this is accurate. But it also misses the point of the underlying controversy.
Rand Paul has, on more than one occasion as a senator, publicly endorsed cutting off U.S. aid to Israel. Neither the senator nor his office deny that, but they do hope to shift the conversation to different ground, highlighting points that seem more politically palatable.
In other words, the reports and Paul’s reaction to the reports are talking past each other. The straightforward questions remain the same: does Rand Paul acknowledge his previous position? Does he still hold that position? And if not, why not?
The other details are relevant to understanding the senator’s larger vision on foreign policy, but they’re also irrelevant to the issue at hand.