Will Rand Paul’s Unorthodox Foreign Policy Fit in the GOP?

Libertarianism may be en vogue but isolationism isn’t. Yet there may be room on the left of the party for him to win.

04.09.14 9:45 AM ET

As the 2016 GOP presidential race heats up, many Republicans—particularly governors and relatively junior senators—are seeking of beef up their foreign policy smarts. The list of those meeting with potential candidates reads like a who’s who of the Republican foreign policy establishment over the decades: Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, John McCain, and so on.

Standing on his own is Rand Paul.

Paul’s foreign policy positions are far from Republican orthodoxy. A video recently emerged of Paul speaking to a Kentucky student group in 2009, alleging that the U.S. sent troops to Iraq so that Dick Cheney’s old company, Halliburton, could profit. More recently, Paul voted “no” on the aid package to Ukraine, one of only two senators to do so. From his “mixed feelings” about Edward Snowden to being only one of two Republicans not cosponsoring legislation that would increase sanctions on Iran, Paul is not exactly in the GOP mainstream.

Already, the GOP’s foreign-policy primary battle is underway. Cheney tacitly bashed Paul last month, saying an “increasing strain of isolationism” is taking over their party. Paul and Chris Christie traded punches over national security issues last year. Meanwhile, Paul has claimed the mantle of Reaganism for his foreign policy views, in a direct swipe at Ted Cruz.

Foreign policy and national security are fascinating issues for presidential politics this go-round because neither party is necessarily unified in their view. Take the Amash amendment introduced in Congress last year: it would’ve defunded controversial National Security Agency programs engaging in bulk-data collection. In a Congress that set a record for party-line votes, the vote on the Amash amendment had nearly no relationship with partisanship: 111 Democrats and 94 Republicans voted for it, highlighting the divide within both parties about how best to keep America both safe and free.

Yet if the rosters of advisors signal anything about where the various Republican aspirants might land on foreign policy, it is increasingly clear that Paul may have the less-hawkish wing of the party all to himself. The question is whether or not that’s a large enough constituency to carry him through a GOP primary.

Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report doesn’t think so. “Paul’s more dovish views on U.S. military intervention, NSA spying, and foreign policy may expand his appeal in a general election. But, they will be problematic in a GOP primary.”

The hawkish wing of the party may have greater numbers, but if Paul is the only voice representing the other viewpoint, it could be an asset rather than a liability in a crowded GOP primary. There’s also the question of the voters who have left the GOP over the last decade. Independent voters are among the most pro-civil liberty, and to the extent that there are ex-Republicans in that group looking for someone who represents their views, a Paul candidacy could bring them back into the fold and slightly re-shape the GOP primary terrain.

The challenge for Paul will be to decide just how bold he wants to be and to demonstrate that his views don’t call for a total retreat from the globe. While Americans are war-weary, two-thirds think it is good to be engaged economically around the globe. People understand that it is increasingly impossible to pretend that what happens over there doesn’t matter here.

Public opinion on foreign policy can be radically reshaped in response to major global events, and there’s no telling what the public mood on these issues might look like a year from now if, say, Russia continues trying to gobble up pieces of Ukraine or if Kim Jong-Un bombs South Korea.

While polls this far out are relatively useless as predictors of how the GOP primary might go, the fact that Rand Paul sits atop the most recent CNN poll indicates he’s at least got enough name recognition to make a serious run (PDF). If he chooses to take the plunge, he will likely find himself alone in the dovish end of the GOP pool. In a crowded primary, politically, it might be very good to be lonely.