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There was a cute paragraph in a column exhorting pro-vaccine Republicans to speak out on the outrage du jour, noting some conservatives were already answering the charge.

“The Washington Free Beacon dug up damning comments from Rand Paul in 2009, when he was on the conspiracy nut show Infowars, suggesting that mandatory vaccination was akin to ‘martial law,'” The Week’s Ryan Cooper wrote. “Even Jennifer Rubin is on board.”

Even Jennifer Rubin!

Paul and other Republicans badly mishandled vaccines-gate. This is an issue that is mostly being handled well by the states, isn’t part of the president or the federal government’s job description in the Constitution and where a lot of the problems are in blue states where left-wing anti-vaccine sentiment runs high.

Not even a libertarian Republican is going to get many votes from these Hollywood liberals.

But a significant amount of the controversy, at least as it concerns Rand Paul, isn’t about immunizing children. It’s about immunizing the Republican Party from infectious libertarianism, especially when the symptoms include less interventionist foreign-policy views.

That’s not to say there haven’t been conservatives who are serious about vaccines pushing back against the anti-vaxx movement before. You’ll notice a lot of them are also willing to criticize Chris Christie, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for pandering to voters who believe in an erroneous link between vaccines and autism.

But the people focusing disproportionately on the junior senator from Kentucky aren’t worried that Paul will stop vaccinations.

They’re worried he will stop wars.

This is not a new tactic. Most of the writers and the outlets who devoted considerable time to mining through Ron Paul’s newsletters were more closely linked to a hawkish foreign policy than crusades against racism.

That includes most liberal of these outlets. The New Republic supported the Iraq war, endorsed Joe Lieberman for president and was otherwise the voice of the pro-war left.

The “in-flight magazine of Air Force One” not infrequently seemed to be auditioning for the role of in-flight magazine of aerial bombing raids.

At the very least, it was much more likely to police the left for insufficient hawkishness than racism. Other progressives have criticized The New Republic’s record on race, which the magazine itself has reflected on.

None of this is to defend the newsletters’ objectionable content. The criticism of the offensive passages and the unconvincing explanations behind them was obviously correct.

But Ron Paul wasn’t running on a platform of racially incendiary quotes in 2008 or 2012 (or really in any of his prior campaigns). Racial issues were not the reason big, young crowds were cheering him.

Foreign policy — specifically, the Texas congressman’s willingness to oppose the Iraq war when barely any other Republicans would — was a major source of his political appeal.

Similarly, much (though certainly not all) of the newsletter coverage was aimed not at purging racism from public discourse, but suppressing and discrediting Paul’s foreign-policy critique.

This is going to be an ongoing theme in 2016, because unlike his father, Rand Paul has a theoretical path to the nomination and therefore the White House. He’s not the frontrunner, victory is far from the likeliest scenario, but it is not impossible.

What was evident when the elder Paul ran for president is undeniable now. Liberty can bring people together across the political spectrum, but diverse coalitions are inherently fragile.

When Rand Paul does well, he can win plaudits from across the ideological continuum in ways few other Republicans can replicate. But when he stumbles, he has fewer reflexive defenders than Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz or even Jeb Bush.

The liberal media will jump on Paul because they are liberal and much of the conservative media will pile on too because they are more hawkish.

Avoiding missteps in intense spotlight of a national campaign isn’t easy. But just as Paul wouldn’t arm the Syrian rebels, he shouldn’t give ammunition to a bipartisan group of detractors either.

Conservative realism necessitates a clear-eyed look at domestic political realities too.

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