On Thursday, October 23, Senator Rand Paul--a widely rumored 2016 Republican presidential candidate--traveled to New York City and attempted to explain clearly and definitively where he stands on matters of U.S. foreign policy and national security. The speech was billed by pundits and Rand Paul-watchers as a defining moment for a prospective presidential campaign--a primary race that hasn't even started, but is already full of Republicans who have either expressed their intention to run or are running in all but name. The freshmen senator is clearly within that category: indeed, reports that Rand Paul has asked veteran political operatives to assemble for a strategy session a mere eight days after the midterms all but confirms that he is seriously getting ready to put his hat in the ring.
Rand Paul's appearance in front of the foreign policy heavyweights at the Center for the National Interest was thus conveniently timed a mere week before the midterm elections. Considering the fact that those who run for president generally announce their intentions sometime after the midterms, it's not a coincidence that Sen. Paul wants to ensure that future voters, supporters, and donors understand his view of the world, America's roll in it, and the principles that would guide him as a Commander-in-Chief.
There are five highly important quotes from the speech on Thursday night. The entire speech is worth reading, especially if you happen to be an undecided voter or a registered Independent who is not yet sure which candidate is qualified for the job. Step 1 for Paul, however, is convincing and reassuring a traditional Republican establishment that he is not the isolationist candidate that so many neoconservatives make him out to be. Whether he succeeds in that task or not will depend on whether a candidate Paul (assuming he decides to run) is able to adapt to changing events, all the while being consistent enough in his positions to prevent political rivals from labeling him a "flip-flopper" or an opportunist who is simply responding to the polls.
1 - "Americans want strength and leadership but that doesn't mean they see war as the only solution. Reagan had it right when he spoke to potential adversaries: "Our reluctance for conflict should not be misjudged as a failure of will." After the tragedies of Iraq and Libya, Americans are right to expect more from their country when we go to war."
2 - "We need a foreign policy that recognizes our limits and preserves our might, a common-sense conservative realism of strength and action. We can't retreat from the world, but we can't remake it in our own image either. We can't and shouldn't engage in nation building, but we can facilitate trade and extend the blessings of freedom and free markets around the world."
3 - "War should not be a unilateral decision taken in the isolation of the White House. But that is what happened [in Libya]. In failing to seek Congressional authority, President Obama missed a chance to galvanize the country. He missed a chance to lead. A President who recognizes the Constitutional limitations of power is not weakened, but actually empowered by the public debate that comes with a declaration of war."
4 - "In light of the new threat posed by ISIS, I believe it is even more imperative that Tehran and Washington find an effective diplomatic solution for limiting the Iranian enrichment program. A nuclear armed Iran would only further destabilize a region in turmoil."
5 - "Our enemies should bear witness to the unmatched and unstoppable American force that was justifiably unleashed after 9/11 and know that terrorism will never defeat America, that terrorism will only awaken and embolden our resolve. But the world should also know that America aspires to peace, trade, and commerce with all. That though we will not abide injustice we will not instigate war."
Bonus Quote: "The Obama administration, urged on by Hillary Clinton, wanted to go to war but didn't anticipate the consequences of war." If there is any quote in the speech that illustrates how seriously Rand Paul is looking at a run for president, it's this one: hitting the all-but-anointed Democratic presidential candidate for 2016.
Confined within a relatively short speech, Rand Paul tried to bat away a number of allegations that have hurt his popularity with the more hawkish wing of the Republican Party. The speech was riddled with multiple attempts to set the record straight: he is not an isolationist in the mold of his father, Ron; he is more than willing to use military force in defense of core U.S. national security interests; he understands that alliances are critical to a successful U.S. foreign policy; and he is embedded to the belief that the United States cannot continue to play the role of the indispensable superpower if domestic issues like the economy and the national debt are not seriously addressed.
Despite Rand Paul's attempt to better explain his foreign policy, there are some segments of the Republican Party that will continue to view him as a politician who is either naive about how nasty the world is or a prospective Republican presidential candidate who at times is even more dovish than the mainstream Democrat. Neonconservatives like Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol (or anyone at the Weekly Standard, for that matter) and more establishment-type figures like the National Review's Rich Lowry will continue to cast a doubtful and suspicious eye on Paul if he seeks the presidency in 2016. The series of Super PAC's that push for a more aggressive U.S. posture in international affairs will attempt to hit Paul where if he happens to shy too far away from the conventional Republican line. But in a way, these developments are a good illustration of how worried some Republican donors are about the Kentucky Senator actually winning the Republican nomination.
Paul's speech on October 23, however, wasn't geared towards the far-right wing of the party that will most likely refrain from voting for him anyway. Rather, it was designed to elicit a positive response (or at least a second-look) from independents and centrist Republicans who are confused amidst a crowded Republican field in 2016.
Whether you love him or hate him, Rand Paul is succeeding in doing something that other Republican candidates (save for his father) have not done in a very long time: broaden the foreign policy debate within the Republican Party in order to encompass a growing libertarian streak among younger Americans. People like Bill Kristol and Dick Cheney don't appreciate Paul's efforts, which for many is enough to take Rand seriously for 2016.