The Republican Party built an advantage on foreign policy across generations, and then began demolishing it 10 years ago this month. What the Cold War made, the invasion of Iraq largely unmade: beginning in 2003, a party that had long promised — and mostly delivered — peace through strength became identified with an intelligence fiasco, a botched occupation and the squandering of American resources, credibility and lives.
Two Republicans running for president in 2012, Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul, seemed to have some grasp of what Iraq had done to their party’s reputation. But they were both niche candidates who spoke to small constituencies (libertarians in Paul’s case, journalists in Huntsman’s). Paul’s isolationism was hectoring and eccentric, with a “we had it coming” view of terrorism that the Republican electorate was never likely to embrace. Huntsman’s attempt to rehabilitate foreign policy realism was as passionless and flat-footed as his entire campaign. Neither had much influence on Mitt Romney, whose foreign policy rhetoric left the impression that his party had learned nothing from the Bush era.
But where Huntsman and Paul the elder mostly failed, Rand Paul has been enjoying remarkable success. The Kentucky senator’s recent ascent to prominence, which achieved escape velocity with last week’s 13-hour filibuster delaying the confirmation of President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the CIA, hasn’t just made the younger Paul one of the most talked-about politicians in Washington today. It has offered the first real sign that the Republican Party might someday escape the shadow of the Iraq war and enter the post-post-9/11 era.
Officially, Paul’s filibuster was devoted to a specific question of executive power — whether there are any limits on the president’s authority to declare American citizens enemy combatants and deal out death to them. But anyone who listened (and listened, and listened) to his remarks, and put them in the context of his recent speeches and votes and bridge-building, recognized that he was after something bigger: a reorientation of conservative foreign policy thinking away from hair-trigger hawkishness and absolute deference to executive power.
Exactly where such a reorientation would take the party is unclear. Depending on the context, Paul can sometimes sound like a libertarian purist, sometimes like a realist in the Brent Scowcroft mode and sometimes like — well, like a man who was an ophthalmologist in Bowling Green, Ky., just a few short years ago.
But if his ideas are still evolving, his savvy is impressive. Paul has recognized, as a figure like Huntsman did not, that to infuse new ideas into a moribund party you need to speak the language of the base, and sell conservatives as well as moderates on your proposed course correction. (There’s a reason his recent foreign policy speech was delivered at the Heritage Foundation — normally a redoubt of Cheneyism — and his two big interviews after his filibuster were with Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.) And he’s exploited partisan incentives to bring his fellow Republicans around to his ideas, deliberately picking battles — from the Libya intervention to drone warfare — where a more restrained foreign policy vision doubles as a critique of the Obama White House.
Those incentives, rather than an intellectual sea change on the right, explain why his filibuster enjoyed so much Republican support. (Most of the senators who gave him an assist were just looking for a chance to score points against a Democratic White House.) But if Paul hasn’t won the party over to his ideas, he’s clearly widened the space for intra-Republican debate. And if he runs for president in 2016, that debate will become more interesting than it’s been for many, many years.
There’s a lesson here for his fellow Republican politicians — though that lesson is not, I repeat not, that they should all remake themselves as Paul-style libertarians. One can appreciate the Kentucky senator’s evolution away from his father’s crankishness without completely trusting that it’s genuine, and on domestic policy a swing to libertarian purism is something the present Republican Party doesn’t need.
Rather, the lesson of Paul’s ascent is that being a policy entrepreneur carries rewards as well as risks — and that if you know how to speak the language of the party’s base, it’s possible to be a different kind of Republican without forfeiting your conservative bona fides.
This is something that the party’s other ambitious officeholders have been slow to recognize. Since the 2012 election, a number of prominent Republicans — Eric Cantor, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, and so on — have given speeches that tiptoe toward new ideas, new policies, new visions of what their party might stand for and support. But ultimately they’ve all stopped short of actually breaking with the policy consensus that sent Romney down to defeat.
Paul, by contrast, has actually challenged that consensus in a substantive and constructive way. And far from being excommunicated for it, he’s been rewarded with greater prominence and increased conservative support.
For those with ears, let them hear.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times.
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