In 2007, Rand Paul gave his first interview to Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist radio host and founder of Infowars.com.
Paul was helping his father, then-Congressman Ron Paul, campaign for the Republican presidential nomination and, Jones said, the entirety of his audience helped to make up the elder Paul’s base of fervent supporters.
Jones was struck by the younger Paul’s similarity to his father. “You know, talking to you, you sound so much like your dad,” Jones said. “This is great! We have, like, a Ron Paul clone!”
When Jones noted that the elder Paul was the only anti-war candidate, Rand replied, “I tell people in speeches, I say you know, we’re against the Iraq war, we have been since the beginning, but we’re also against the Iran war—you know, the one that hasn’t started yet. You know, the thing is I think people want to paint my father into some corner, but if you look at it, intellectually, look at the evidence that Iran is not a threat.”
As evidence of this, he said, you needn’t look further than the fact that
“Iran cannot even refine their own gasoline.”
And further, Paul said, “even our own intelligence community consensus opinion now is that they’re not a threat. My dad says, they don’t have an air force! They don’t have a navy! You know, it’s ridiculous to think that they’re a threat to our national security. It’s not even that viable to say they’re a threat to Israel. Most people say Israel has 100 nuclear weapons.”
Eight years later, Paul’s beliefs are very different.
In response to the agreement reached Tuesday between Iran, the United States, the UK, France, China, Russia and Germany to diminish Iran’s nuclear program, Paul, now the junior Senator from Kentucky and candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, released a statement outlining his opposition.
“The proposed agreement with Iran is unacceptable for the following reasons:
1) sanctions relief precedes evidence of compliance
2) Iran is left with significant nuclear capacity
3) it lifts the ban on selling advanced weapons to Iran
I will, therefore, vote against the agreement. While I continue to believe negotiations are preferable to war, I would prefer to keep the interim agreement in place instead of accepting a bad deal.”
Asked how Paul’s position had shifted so dramatically since he was campaigning for his father, Doug Stafford, his senior campaign adviser, said, “Foreign policy should reflect events and events change. Senator Paul has always thought Iran getting a nuclear weapon was a bad idea and dangerous. But over the last eight years, as Iran has made progress in their nuclear enrichment program, it’s become more of a threat. Not allowing your opinions to reflect changing threats would be foolish.”
But it’s just frankly not true, as the Alex Jones interview demonstrates.
What is true is that the Iran deal places Paul in an impossible bind. Paul’s positions are usually so nuanced that they escape criticism of flip-flopping, but his shift on Iran is unusually clear—even if it was gradual.
Whether compromise is a wise strategy for Paul in the primary is uncertain. Paul is currently polling at 6.6 percent—behind Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee. Paul is not going to vault back into the top tier by siphoning off votes from more establishment candidates, whose supporters will never buy him as one of their own. And he won’t mobilize his libertarian base by taking them for granted.
In April, reporter David Weigel, outlined in detail Paul’s transformation for Bloomberg Politics. In 2011, while in the Senate, Paul was still vocally opposed to war, telling reporter Zaid Jilani he wanted to “influence” Iran instead. In 2012, while again campaigning for his father, he reiterated their anti-war position while clarifying that Ron Paul “doesn’t want Iran to nuclear weapons…But should they get nuclear weapons, he thinks that there are some choices.” A few weeks later, Paul explained to CNN that when it came to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, “I did finally come down to the conclusion that doing something was better than doing nothing.”
By 2013, Paul was saying that “the most pressing issue of the day” was how to contend with Iran’s nuclear program, and said that although he still did not want war, if he were in the White House while a deal collapsed, “I would say all options are on the table, and that would include military.”
Back in March, Paul was faced with a choice: sign the open letter penned by his Senate colleague, Tom Cotton, which Cotton explicitly said was designed to halt negotiations, or be the only presidential contender in the Senate to not sign it, and risk losing support in the fallout.
Despite the fact that Paul had maintained—and continues to maintain—that he favors negotiations, he compromised and opted for the first choice, contorting himself uncomfortably in his effort to explain his decision and irking some of the longtime libertarian supporters he inherited from his father in the process.
He has pursued a similar strategy with the deal.
The Atlantic’s David Frum made what on its face felt like a reckless prediction on Tuesday: “The Rand Paul Candidacy for the Republican Nomination Is Over.” Frum’s case was that throughout the course of his short Senate career, Paul has been able to carve out space for himself within his party by mostly focusing on the issue of domestic surveillance, which comfortably placed him in opposition to the hawks he bemoans and to President Obama. The deal presented for Paul a no-win: Were he to support the deal, however, Frum argued, he would “find himself isolated with the old Ron Paul constituency,” but were he to oppose it, he would vanish amid a sea of similar voices in the primary field.
The best explanation for Paul’s new position may come from Paul himself.
In an interview with The Today Show’s Savannah Guthrie in April, the same day two attack ads were released tying him to Obama on the issue, Paul said, “2007 was a long time ago and events do change over long periods of time. We’re talking about a time when I wasn’t running for office, when I was helping someone else run for office.”
So when the facts change—be they the facts of the issue at hand or the facts of Paul’s personal political objectives—Paul changes his mind.