As Rand Paul tests the 2016 presidential waters, he has been busy making the case to mainstream Republican economic and foreign policy circles that he is not the libertarian extremist that even some in his own party have pegged him to be.
In just the past week the first-term Kentucky senator with the famous dad has taken his message to mainstream and deep-pocketed Republican donors in Atlanta and to a couple of Washington’s most prominent think tanks.
Tuesday night he told an audience assembled to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the prestigious realist organization, the Center for the National Interest, that he is not the “isolationist” that some detractors would like to label him as.
Rather, the junior senator who filibustered for 13 hours over the Obama administration’s drones policy said, “Our foreign policy and national security policy are too belligerent.” A better foreign policy, Senator Paul said, is one grounded in “the idea that negotiation can improve our world” – and he cited how he believes that intensified relations with China can lead to progress on North Korea, and how stronger engagement with Russia can yield results on Syria. [Editor's note: The original version of this story mischaracterized Senator Paul's reasoning for his filibuster.]
And Paul’s rather traditional internationalist ideas didn’t fall on just any ears. In the audience were such realist Republican foreign policy icons as Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft.
Paul, whose antiwar father, former Texas Congressman Ron Paul, was a repeat Republican presidential candidate, was clearly comfortable criticizing the “neocons” who flourished under the George W. Bush administration. His words suggested he felt he could reliably assume that the National Interest audience contained few of them.
In the first of several swipes at the neoconservative thinking that underpinned the Iraq war and spawned the vision of a Middle East democratized by way of Baghdad, Paul said foreign policy must be pursued by addressing “events as they are, not as we wish them to be.”
Paul’s foreign-policy talk followed a brief appearance earlier in the day across town at the Heritage Foundation, where he introduced the conservative think tank’s annual global Index of Economic Freedom.
This year’s index, which is developed in partnership with the Wall Street Journal, found that while economic freedom is expanding globally – in Asia, Africa, and in parts of Europe – in the United States it slipped for the seventh year in a row.
For the first time this year, the index has the US falling out of the list of the world’s Top 10 freest economies – largely as a result of Obamacare’s going into effect, rising regulation, and tax policy.
In addressing the Heritage audience, Paul zeroed in on Obamacare, calling it “the biggest loss of freedom of choice in 50 years.” But he cited as the larger culprit in the US fall on the index the growth of Big Government.
Economic freedom is “increasingly proportional to the size of your government,” he said, adding that the US government “continues to grow at an alarming rate.”
At Heritage, one got the impression that Paul’s brief remarks were in part a favor to Heritage president and former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who raised mainstream Republican eyebrows when he endorsed Paul in Kentucky’s 2010 Republican senatorial primary over the establishment Republican candidate.
But at the National Interest dinner, Paul’s longer talk – focused on the more mainstream idea that “problems should be approached first by engaging” – sounded more like the vision of a potential presidential candidate out to appeal to a broader audience than the one he’s usually associated with.
Not only is the diplomacy-first approach one that can appeal to both Republicans and Democrats in a war-weary America, but there were other clues that Paul is out to reach a wider swath of voters.
As the dinner’s emcee, National Interest board member Richard Burt, noted in introducing Paul, the senator was the only speaker of the evening “to come with his own teleprompters in tow.”