Two weeks after Senator Rand Paul endorsed Mitt Romney much of the wider Paul movement is still at odds over its meaning. The endorsement itself was rather weak. What was troubling, however, was how he appeared to give Romney a "free pass" on foreign policy, calling it "mature" and saying he didn't believe Romney would be a "reckless commander-in-chief."
How could Paul say such a thing when Romney compiled a foreign policy team filled with neoconservatives and Bush retreads and when Romney has shown himself to make ridiculous foreign policy statements? Regarding Iran, for instance, Romney recently said on Face the Nation, "I don't believe at this stage... that we need to have a war powers approval or special authorization for military force. The president has that capacity now."
Romney's statement about war powers is unusually insightful. Obviously he believes the president has the power to make war without congressional approval. But where does he think that power came from? There wasn't an amendment to the Constitution. The executive branch, most recently with Obama's intervention in Libya, grabbed the power and determined that it didn't need to ask for congressional authorization. A more provincial way to interpret Romney is that the presidency has "evolved" to the point that it has learned to wage war without congressional approval.
In response, Rand Paul wrote an editorial for National Review Online (NRO). There he wrote:
"I do not yet know if I will find a Romney presidency more acceptable on foreign policy. But I do know that I must oppose the most recent statements made by Mitt Romney in which he says he, as president, could take us to war unilaterally with Iran, without any approval from Congress. . . . "The Constitution clearly states that it is Congress that has the power to declare war, not the president. The War Powers Act also clearly states that U.S. forces are to engage in hostilities only if the circumstances are 'pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.' "Absent these criteria, the president has no authority to declare war."
However, not everyone is satisfied.
Bob Wenzel at the Economic Policy Journal says:
"Rand here is not saying he is against attacking Iran, just that he wants congressional approval - so its not a great anti-war leap, more of a call for a stamp of approval."
Over at Antiwar.com, editor Justin Raimondo adds:
"Rand Paul . . . tries to calm the waters roiled by his preemptive endorsement . . . by taking to the pages of National Review Online to 'rip' (as Conor Friedersdorf put it) Romney's view that the President doesn't need separate authorization from Congress to attack Iran. Unfortunately this 'rip' is but a minor tear: you'll note Sen. Paul doesn't say how he'd vote on this issue."
The common theme in both of these critiques is that they assume Paul would support war with Iran and that he is only pining for a vote, but this is an odd complaint.
Even if Paul's position is as bad as Wenzel and Raimondo infer, and he is merely looking for a "stamp of approval," that would still be an improvement over the current system where the president claims sole authority to wage war. The authority to declare war lies with the legislative branch because then they will be accountable to the people of their states and if nothing else, Paul is making an appeal for accountability in government.
And while it may rile Wenzel and Raimondo that Paul is mum about how he'd vote, let's keep in mind that NRO is a venue that daily publishes articles calling for war on Iran and which talks, however cheaply, about the Constitution. By attaching war with Iran to the issue of constitutionality, Paul may be compelling a readership inclined to favor another Middle Eastern war to also confront the constitutional implications of not only a future war, but past ones.
Instead of taking an overtly antiwar stance, Rand Paul has always talked about foreign policy more in terms of constitutionality and less in terms of blowback. By making an appeal to constitutionality he is speaking a language acceptable to the Republicans he is trying to reach. Paul's coyness on foreign policy makes good political sense in a party that still refuses to confront the consequences of the militarism of the Bush era. Instead of offering a black-and-white perspective, Paul is offering an option that is neither dogmatically pro-war nor antiwar but one that is more reflective and one that cannot easily be maligned as "kooky" or "isolationist."
The implications of Paul's strategy were also on display when he took a lot of guff, among other things, regarding a recent interview on Daily Paul Radio for apparently disparaging his base of support by implying that many of his loudest critics are anarchists or who simply don't vote on principle. It may have been an odd remark, but was it substantively untrue?
Observing the tail end of the Republican nominating process, when Ron Paul was speaking to packed houses, but barely polling above 10% implies that the candidate may have had many more admirers and fans than literal voters. Unquestionably, the elder Paul did exceedingly well in 2012 compared to 2008, but much of this support came from Democrats and independents, an unusual constituency. In the Iowa Caucuses, Ron Paul won among moderate to liberal Republicans and had the second highest total among those describing themselves as "very conservative." But so far, independents have not been enough to vault Ron Paul over the finish line. His ideas might be remaking the GOP, but it is still a task to graft independents into a larger party to effect political change.
It's no secret that some of the most liberal voters who fueled Barack Obama's campaign in 2008 are disappointed with their president and many ended up voting for Ron Paul in Republican primaries, and it's also no surprise either that Ron Paul performed best in open primaries. It's too soon to tell whether these Democrats who voted for Paul are true supporters or if they were only disgruntled Democrats sincerely voting for their second choice but who will end up voting for Obama again in November.
It's commonly said that the balance of the election is held by independents. The importance of this demographic is underscored by the existence and success of this forum. But the balance of power within a major political party is held by more than simply its most independent minded voters. It is also held by its regular voters who don't necessarily think about the issues beyond a superficial level. Despite his tremendous strides, Ron Paul would have had a much better opportunity to win the Republican nomination if he had broader appeal among regular Republicans.
When I first wrote about Rand Paul's endorsement I made the point that it was part of a long term strategy to work within the GOP to advance the liberty agenda. Had he refused to endorse the nominee any of his objections to a Romney presidency would be easily ignored as those of a gadfly and likely only to be seen as a curiosity much like his father. But a Rand Paul who endorsed the party nominee would have political cover to publicly oppose Romney, but might also be in a position for regular Republicans to hear him.
That's why the appearance at NRO of an editorial denouncing Romney's views is so significant. Akin to preaching the gospel in hell, National Review is still the flagship of movement conservatism and it represents the opinion of a conservative establishment none too interested in curtailing presidential war powers. And let us not forget what else Rand Paul said in that editorial cluing us in as to how he really feels about all the other wars:
"President Obama was elected on a platform of ending wars, yet he has opposed every effort made by me and others in the Senate to do that. He opposed my resolution to end the Iraq War. He has refused my urgings to end the war in Afghanistan more quickly. He started another war in Libya, and this time went further into unconstitutional territory than previous presidents by not even seeking Congressional approval whatsoever."
It's an encouraging sign amidst all the acrimony that Rand Paul opposed such a reckless Romney statement so promptly although Paul probably knew Romney would give him an opportunity.
But as the saying goes (or at least part of it) money talks and everything discussed here is pure speculation. What matters is what Rand Paul will do during a Romney presidency. But if this incident is any indication, there may be good reason to believe, endorsements notwithstanding, Rand Paul is positioning himself to be to Romney what was wholly lacking in the Bush administration: conservative opposition.