Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul performed a careful dance on foreign policy in his presidential announcement speech on Tuesday, reassuring party hawks with tough talk on Iran and ISIS while playing to libertarians with calls to slash foreign aid and military commitments.
"The enemy is radical Islam,” Paul said in one passage. “You can’t get around it and not only will I name the enemy, I will do whatever it takes to defend America from these haters of mankind.”
Paul has been torn throughout the year between the libertarian wing personified by his father, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, and the GOP’s more traditional national security wing. Libertarian activists back a policy of non-interventionism that typically includes the elimination of foreign aid, pulling out of international institutions, and an intense skepticism of military action. They also are strongly concerned about government overreach in prosecuting the war on terror, especially on issues of surveillance. Most Republicans favor a more muscular approach, however, and the rise of ISIS and a potential sweeping nuclear deal with Iran have put these issues at the front of the presidential debate.
Paul has adjusted to this new reality by backing military action against ISIS after initially expressing skepticism, endorsing material support for Israel after initially calling for an end to all foreign aid, proposing an increase in defense spending after previously calling for cuts, and, on Tuesday, by playing up his determination to put a nuclear agreement in front of Congress, which could tie Obama’s hands.
“Successful negotiations with untrustworthy adversaries are only achieved from a position of strength,” Paul said. “We’ve brought Iran to the table through sanctions that I voted for. Now we must stay strong. That’s why I’ve cosponsored legislation that ensures that any deal between the U.S. and Iran must be approved by Congress.”
Paul has broken with his party on Iran in the past and the next few weeks will be a delicate period. Early in his career, he accused Republicans of over-hyping the threat they posed, and he was one of just two Republicans who refused to sign onto a bill to increase sanctions this year, warning it could derail talks between Iran, the White House, and other major world powers.
With Republicans up in arms over Obama’s nuclear framework with Iran, however, Paul joined in bullying the White House from the right on Tuesday while nodding to his dovish supporters in the same breath.
“The difference between President Obama and myself, he seems to think you can negotiate from a position of weakness,” Paul said. “Yet everyone needs to realize that negotiations are not inherently bad.”
In other areas, the senator was more comfortable sticking to his old rhetoric. Paul, who reportedly said he would be “happy to dissolve” the United Nations in January, didn’t hold in his call to eliminate humanitarian aid abroad on Tuesday.
“Let’s quit building bridges in foreign countries and use that money to build some bridges here at home,” he said. “It angers me to see mobs burning our flag and chanting ‘Death to America’ in countries that receive millions of dollars in our foreign aid.”
If Paul wins, it will be by adding mainstream GOP voters to his father’s outsider coalition. But working to please everyone could just as easily end up pleasing no one and erode his core support. The challenge for Paul moving forward will be to prove palatable to non-libertarian Republicans without losing the libertarian base that powered his father’s campaign.