GOP’s top ’16 pick is incoherent on Putin crisis


    GOP chairman Reince Priebus laments that Republicans are “having a hard time winning” presidential elections. He got that right. Looking ahead to 2016, here’s how screwed up they are: Their current front-runner is a foreign policy dolt who oscillates between cluelessness and incoherence.

    And that’s what a lot of Republicans say about him.

    In three new surveys – the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll, the Northeast Republican Leadership Council straw poll, and a CNN/ORC poll of Republican and GOP-leaning independent voters – the guy at the top of the pile is none other than…Rand Paul. But for a party that has long branded itself as muscular and mature on foreign policy, Paul’s ascent is a big problem. Because, as most vividly demonstrated during the current Ukraine crisis, America’s ophthalmologist is anything but clear-eyed.

    Heck, this guy’s recent backflips and policy pirouettes could’ve earned him a gold medal at Vladimir Putin’s Olympics.

    A popular pro-Republican website, never one to mince words, simply asks, “Why is Rand Paul acting like a slobbering idiot?” Two reasons come to mind, and, indeed, the two reasons overlap: (1) He’s a non-interventionist libertarian seeking to win the nomination of a hawkishly interventionist party, and (2) He really doesn’t know very much. Let’s track the chronology, shall we?

    On Feb. 25 in The Washington Post, as the Putin crisis was heating up, Paul took a shot at the GOP’s hawkish interventionists: “Some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Russia all the time and I don’t think that is a good idea.” He said we need to nurture a “respectful relationship with Russia” because “the Cold War is largely over.”

    But on March 9, in a guest column on the Time website, he proceeded to tweak Russia, apparently deeming it a good idea: “(Putin’s) continuing occupation of Ukraine is completely unacceptable….It is our role as a global leader to be the strongest nation in opposing Russia’s latest aggression. Putin must be punished for violating the (1994) Budapest Memorandum, and Russia must learn that the U.S. will isolate it if it insists on acting like a rogue nation.”

    However, in that same guest column, he also sent the opposite signal, suggesting that our response should be relatively benign: “I believe the U.S. can actually be stronger by doing less.”

    But having just suggested that we should be “doing less,” he proceeded to beat his chest and declare that we should do a whole lot more. For instance, “I would reinstitute the missile-defense shields President Obama abandoned in 2009 in Poland and the Czech Republic.” All told, “Let me be clear. If I were president, I wouldn’t let Vladimir Putin get away with it.”

    So if we stand with Rand, here’s the deal: We oughta condemn the hawkish Republicans who always want to tweak Russia, but nevertheless we should have a respectful tweaking relationship with Russia – denouncing its aggression by doing less than we can, but without letting the aggression stand. Or something like that.

    One day after the Time column, he sought to further clarify his thinking on the right-wing site. In an apparent swipe at Republican hawk (and ’16 rival) Ted Cruz, he complained that “some politicians have used this time to beat their chest. What we don’t need right now is politicians who have never seen war talking tough.”

    Which was fascinating, because, just a day earlier on the Time site, Paul had beaten his chest (“I wouldn’t let Vladimir Putin get away with it”). There he was, a politician who had never seen war talking tough.

    And what about his tough talk about putting missiles in Poland? Back in 2009, after Russia sent troops into the breakaway nation of Georgia, aspiring senator Paul – speaking as a dove – told college Republicans in Kentucky that a defense shield in Poland was a bad idea: “We have to decide whether putting missiles in Poland is gonna provoke the Russians. Maybe not to war, but whether it’s worth provoking them…”

    Paul’s political dilemma is obvious. His core fans on non-interventionist libertarians, but he’ll have a tough time winning the GOP nomination unless he beats his chest once in awhile. And as flip-floppers go, he’s not particularly adept. Which is why the dominant hawks and establishment types are as skeptical and scatching as ever.

    Conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin writes, “The only thing remarkable about (Paul’s) recent foray into foreign policy is how quickly he has managed to annoy Republicans.” A security analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute says that “events demonstrate his ignorance. Then he starts firing in every direction.” And a conservative diarist at nails it: “He was raised in an environment where isolationism and the rejection of American power were the norm….His first response (to the Putin crisis) was to assure his base that America was the bad guy, that we were always sticking our nose in other people’s business, and the Crimea was not our business. This is the real Rand Paul. (He) is a huckster out of his depth.”

    And yet he sits narrowly atop the pile of ’16 Republican aspirants. That should be enough to freak out the GOP mainstream, because if he were to somehow wrest the nomination from the party establishment, he’d cede the foreign policy center to Hillary Clinton and spark an electoral slaughter. No wonder Reince Priebus frets about losing more presidential races.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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