Rand Paul and his father Ron Paul have long been considered the polar opposite of George W. Bush’s Republican Party—libertarian doves vs. authoritarian hawks battling for the soul of the GOP on foreign policy and civil liberties.
If Dubya’s GOP was that of the Iraq War and the Patriot Act, Paulian Republicanism has always opposed U.S.-led regime changes and covets constitutional liberties.
Rand Paul sat down with Rare Politics on Friday to give his first national interview since dropping out of the 2016 presidential race. I said to Sen. Paul “When your dad ran he was the only one calling the Iraq war a mistake—and was attacked viciously for it. In this election, Trump calls the Iraq war a mistake. Ted Cruz criticizes ‘neocons’ and denounces regime change. Both these men have also said hawkish things.”
I then asked, “But do you feel like the GOP is coming your way on foreign policy?”
“I think so,” Sen. Paul said. “Particularly the fact that Trump does not think it’s a liability to stand up there and say ‘hey, I was right on opposing the Iraq war.” “You can listen to some of Ted Cruz’s answers on regime change and you can hear words almost identical to things I’ve said,” Paul added.
Less than 48 hours after this interview, this point was driven home in a big way.
“Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake,” said Trump to Jeb Bush in Saturday’s GOP debate. “I said it, and I said it loud and clear,” Trump continued, “You’ll destabilize the Middle East.’ That’s exactly what happened.”
Trump accused hawks Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio of being foolish in wanting regime change in Syria, learning no lessons from the Iraq War experience. Then Trump went even further in denouncing the Bush administration, “They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none.”
A flustered Jeb defended his brother by saying he kept America safe after 9/11. Trump responded that 9/11 happened on Jeb’s brother’s watch. The South Carolina Republican crowd loudly booed Trump.
It was by far the most contentious exchange of the night.
But some said that Trump—still the Republican frontrunner—sounded a lot like Ron Paul.
Fox News’ Kirsten Powers said Trump was channeling Ron Paul and going even further than most Democrats in his attacks on the Bush administration. The Washington Examiner’s Jim Antle wrote, “In 2007, Rudy Giuliani and Ron Paul had a similarly heated exchange over the Iraq War and 9/11 that led to the Texas congressman being booed and the former New York City mayor being cheered.”
That 2007 moment between Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani was so ill-received by Republicans that Ron Paul was not invited to an Iowa GOP forum the following week. That exchange also inspired what would later be called the “Ron Paul Revolution” by the congressman’s fervent supporters.
The National Interest’s Daniel McCarthy observed Saturday, “Neither Ron Paul nor his son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, was on stage in Greenville (SC)… but the open dissent Paul introduced into Republican foreign-policy discussions was loudly echoed/voiced by Donald Trump.”
Though Trump and Cruz occasionally use Paul-type rhetoric (Cruz intentionally, Trump coincidentally), both are also wildly inconsistent. Trump says he would simply “bomb the sh*t” out of ISIS, for example. As Rand Paul emphasized to me Friday, while he appreciates Trump’s opposition to the 2003 Iraq War, “I wish he was of the same opinion of the current Iraq war.”
But Trump’s rhetoric does speak to a now significant faction within the Republican Party who sees the GOP’s lingering Bush-era foreign policy consensus as a problem. Defending the moral justification for the Iraq War became the core of Republican identity for many years after the 2003 invasion. Today, despite the majority of Americans believing Iraq was a mistake, hawks like Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and many Republican voters still defend that war and maintain that now decade-old mindset.
Trump took a heavy hammer to that old identity Saturday. Those loud boos came from a Republican-establishment stacked audience that didn’t want to hear that their president and their party had been disastrously wrong.
Whatever happens with the Trumps and Cruzs of 2016, it is the Paul family that continues to make an indelible mark on the ongoing Republican foreign policy debate.
Disclosure: I co-authored Senator Rand Paul’s 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington and was the official blogger for Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign.