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Rand Paul’s Bizarre Bowe Bergdahl Joke

In a speech to Texas Republicans, the Kentucky senator suggested that the U.S. should have handed over five Democrats instead of five Taliban detainees in exchange for the Army hostage.

Bill Pugliano/Getty

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is trying to sell “Very Serious People” on his credibility as a political figure.

So why did he offer this joke Friday afternoon to a packed house in San Antonio at the Texas Republican Party’s convention, about the deal that freed Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five senior Taliban leaders? “Mr. President, let’s set up a new trade,” he quipped. “Instead of 5 Taliban, let’s trade 5 Democrats!”

Of course Paul, who has come under fire for skipping a classified briefing on the Bergdahl deal, wasn’t serious. But for a senator trying to build national credibility, especially among the Republican Party’s national security establishment, ahead of a possible 2016 presidential bid, the joke struck an off note. It certainly works as red meat to the type of conservative activist who is willing to take a day off to attend a state party convention and already supports Paul. But hawkish conservatives deeply skeptical of the Bergdahl deal and even more doubtful about Paul may see the joke as hamhanded and overly cute, similar to Paul’s much panned proposal to cut aid to the Palestinians in April.

The rest of the senator’s speech Friday was well-received. Paul, strutting across the stage with a wireless microphone and wearing blue jeans, hit almost every other note. From his appeals to expand the Republican Party to include people of all races and colors, as well as “with tattoos and without tattoos,” to his scorn for revenue neutral tax reform, he offered something to almost everyone in the audience.

But Paul’s Achilles’s heel in any presidential campaign will always be foreign policy. Establishment figures look a bit askance at the Kentucky senator because of his isolationist roots. (After all, how many other presidential candidates have a father who is a regular pundit on Russia Today?) So if Ted Cruz or Rick Perry makes the same joke, it’s just another groan-inducing line that entertains the GOP faithful. For Paul, it could be ill-advised.