Rand Paul's spectacular crash: How a man of principle turned into a generic politician

With 2016 approaching, Rand Paul compromises another core principle and proposes billions more in military spending

Published March 26, 2015 6:32PM (EDT)

  (Manuel Balce Ceneta)
(Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Way back in February 2011, newly installed Kentucky senator Rand Paul rose to deliver his first speech on the Senate floor. Calling back to the antebellum debates between pro- and anti-slavery politicians, Paul offered a discourse on the relative virtues of compromise and standing on principle in the face of a crisis, and he wondered: how should today’s legislators compromise in the face of “a fiscal nightmare and potentially a debt crisis?”

“The answer,” Paul concluded, “is of course there must be dialogue and compromise but compromise must occur on where we cut spending and by how much.” As to what that compromise must look like, he offered a vision: “The compromise must be conservatives acknowledging that we can cut military spending and liberals acknowledging that we can cut domestic spending.”

Paul’s calculus was simple: the government’s debt was the gravest threat the country faced, and reducing it meant cutting spending everywhere, including the military budget. Most Republicans would sooner self-amputate a limb than trim defense spending, but Paul stuck by his guns, even as he campaigned for Mitt Romney in 2012. “Romney chose to criticize President Obama for seeking to cut a bloated Defense Department and for not being bellicose enough in the Middle East, two assertions with which I cannot agree,” Paul wrote in an October 2012 CNN Op-Ed. “Defense and war spending has grown 137% since 2001. That kind of growth is not sustainable.”

That brings us to yesterday, as the House of Representatives prepared to vote on competing budget proposals and the Senate was calling up amendments to the Republican budget. As reported by Time, Sen. Rand Paul stood and introduced an amendment that would add $76.5 billion to the Pentagon budget and offset those outlays with steep cuts to climate change research, the EPA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Education Department, and the Commerce Department.

So much for the great compromise! The Senate GOP budget already imposes steep cuts on domestic spending to achieve balance. Paul now wants liberals to absorb additional cuts to domestic spending so that conservatives may indulge in a little more “not sustainable” defense spending.

What happened? Well, the easy answer is that Paul is running for president. Literally every other Republican candidate will be promising to engorge the defense budget past the breaking point in order to prove they are the true reincarnation of Ronald Reagan. With the Iran negotiations and the fight against the Islamic State, foreign policy is dominating the 2016 conversation right now, and Rand has probably made the calculation that he just can’t continue being an outlier within the party on this issue. At the very least, he wants to have something to throw back at people like Marco Rubio who will run hard on foreign policy and demagogue the hell out of Paul’s longstanding insistence that defense spending be cut. Paul’s amendment, as Time notes, raises military spending by “nearly the same level” that Rubio proposed in his own amendment.

The true “compromise” that’s happening here is on Rand Paul’s much-vaunted libertarian principles, which he’s shown an eager willingness to shed as he moves closer and closer to announcing his presidential candidacy. He debuted on the national scene as a Republican who would stand on principle to buck the Republican establishment, and since then he’s steadily diluted his own positions to bring them into closer alignment with the mainstream of the party. The Rand Paul who once scoffed at the Republican “hawks” and “interventionists” has since joined their ranks in calling for a sustained military campaign to “destroy” the Islamic State. He used to support cutting aid to Israel, but now denies ever having espoused that position.

Reversals like these also undercut what is supposed to be the core of Rand Paul’s appeal: that he’s a “different” kind of Republican who can hold on to hardcore conservatives while simultaneously poaching traditionally Democratic voters. “Rand is the Republican who has the best chance of keeping and energizing the base while going into their constituencies,” a Paul aide said last August. “It’s kind of dangerous to have a Republican like Rand.” With each flip-flop, Rand is turning himself into the thing he can’t afford to be: just another Republican.

By Simon Maloy

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