Rand Paul's chronic inconsistency: Where does this guy really stand on anything?

Rand Paul keeps trying to have it both ways on so many issues. This act won't get him far in a presidential race

Published August 6, 2014 3:50PM (EDT)

Rand Paul                      (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Rand Paul (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Let's play one of the best games in politics, "Where is Rand Paul on immigration and general Republican minority outreach today?" This morning in Iowa, he's apparently the Open to Immigration and Against Racial Demagoguery Rand Paul:

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All of which is a bit of a course correction from earlier this week, when he was hanging out with the GOP's No. 1 racial demagogue, Rep. Steve King, and fleeing for his life when a "dreamer" popped up to ask questions. And on Monday night, he was trashing Gov. Rick Perry for a Texas policy offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, a "beacon" comparable to Obama's dreaded imperial amnesty.

Paul consistently tries to get credit for his "openness" to immigration reform, but his argument against supplying his vote for such packages time and again is the same as all other Republicans': the border must be secured first, to blunt the strength of the diabolical Magnet & Beacon. The Gang of Eight bill that passed the Senate last year sought to deploy an almost farcical level of militarized security forces to the border, but Paul of course voted against that bill. Paul has frequently said that the GOP's message should be, "If you want to work and you want a job and want to be part of America, we will find a place for you." But in explaining his "no" vote on the Gang of Eight bill last year, Paul cited the typical anti-immigration boogeyman: how the bill "makes it easier for convicted criminals to gain legal status — gang members, drunk drivers, and sex offenders, to give a few examples."

Rand Paul is a simple case: He wants to maintain his credibility among the libertarian(-leaning) elements of the party and the young people whom he excites while picking up enough mainstream GOP recognition to keep his presidential prospects viable. That's all it is and it makes for some awkward contrasts. He wants to distance himself from the demagogue elements in the party but when it's time to vote on a bill, or leverage an attack on a possible opponent like Perry, he lunges for the red meat.

Nowhere is this awkward dance more obvious than on foreign policy. He seeks to be the anti-interventionist spokesperson for the party but has to be just hawkish enough to shake off the "isolationist" tag. But the more he tries to gain mainstream Republican credibility, the more his past statements come back to annoy him.

Consider the "other" Paul flap from this week: the contrast between his past and present statements on aid to Israel. Paul, like many Republicans, attempts to curry favor with the base by proposing to eliminate the State Department's "foreign aid" budget. This plays on misperceptions that "foreign aid" is a program of giving people in other countries food stamps and other goodies they don't deserve; it's really a budget for maintaining diplomatic ties and giving other countries money to purchase weaponry from American defense contractors. The top client in that regard is Israel. Whoops! So the standard Republican line is now "eliminate all foreign aid -- except to Israel!" That's obviously the pragmatic political line to walk, but it's not the ideologically consistent one. Rand Paul has tried both. Now that he's gearing up for a presidential run, he's trying to take the pragmatic political path, but his past statements in favor of the ideologically consistent one keep popping up. And so he pathetically denies having ever taken the ideologically consistent one, as all dignified politicians do.

Also consider how Paul manages the topic of drones. His anti-interventionist supporters are disappointed with the Obama administration's expansion of drone warfare worldwide. But the mainstream GOP loves bombing people anywhere, any time. And so Paul has settled -- pretty brilliantly, we have to say -- on raising hell over the impertinent prospect of weaponized drones attacking Americans domestically, while cheering on the drone program abroad. This way he gets credit for "speaking out against drones" without actually speaking out against drones.

Rand Paul is not the worst Republican. If he can use his influence to make criminal justice reform acceptable within the GOP, for example, he'll have done more good than the rest of the GOP combined has done in decades. But there are real contrasts in his rhetoric and his record, past and present, which he all too often is unprepared to explain. If he doesn't figure that out, the spotlight of a presidential contest is going to break him.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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2016 Election Drones Editor's Picks Foreign Aid Foreign Policy Immigration Reform Israel Rand Paul Steve King