It’s well known that there are different factions within the Republican Party. While there have been various divides throughout the years, the most recent has been the obvious establishment versus tea party tension. In 2010, both Rand Paul and Marco Rubio cruised to victory on the tea party wave, beating their handpicked establishment opponents with the help of an electorate frustrated by Republicans all too eager to help Democrats grow government. While at first glance this makes it seem as though Paul and Rubio are from the same faction of the GOP, five years in the Senate and a presidential campaign prove that they’re not particularly similar.
In fact, Paul and Rubio are essentially the acting spokesmen for two different strains of Republicanism: libertarianism and neoconservatism. This was on full display in a way that casual political observers aren’t typically exposed to during the last Republican debate hosted by Fox Business. The debate, billed as an opportunity for candidates to talk about their plans for the economy, focused primarily on that topic. The contenders finally got wonkish; talking tax rates, balanced budgets, Fed policy, and trade deals.
Rand Paul, searching for the breakout opportunity he simply hadn’t found in previous debates, interjected as Rubio finished answering a question about whether his proposed child tax credit increases, which are estimated to cost up to $170 billion per year, were economically viable. “We’re not talking about giving people back their tax money,” said Paul of Rubio’s plan. “He’s talking about giving people money they didn’t pay. It’s a welfare transfer payment.” Then came the kicker, “Add that to Marco’s plan for a trillion dollars in new military spending, and you get something that looks to me not very conservative.” When Paul went with that attack, the floodgates opened.
Rubio demanded time to respond, defending his tax plan, but more so taking the opportunity to criticize Paul on defense issues. “I want to rebuild the American military,” said Rubio. “I know Rand is a committed isolationist; I’m not,” he added, as Paul laughed at the admittedly absurd mischaracterization of his views. “We can’t even have an economy if we’re not safe,” said Rubio as he went through a laundry list of atrocities groups like ISIS are committing. Rubio then added a few token comments about the importance of America’s role in the world, attempting to contrast his rival, even though Paul has never actually advocated that America withdraw from a position of international leadership.
This led to Paul’s retort, in which he explained that we aren’t safe as a country if we end up in bankruptcy court. “As we go further and further into debt, we become less and less safe,” said Paul. “We need a safe country. We spend more on our military than the next ten countries combined. I want a strong national defense. But I don’t want us to be bankrupt.” This exchange, while it was telling, barely scratches the surface of an underlying tension that the Republican Party desperately needs to work out.
As someone who is unequivocally on Paul’s side of the foreign policy debate, I’m glad he forced this discussion and hope he conveyed to the average observer that he is in fact for a very strong national defense, as his record in the Senate reflects. But I do wish this exchange had been part of a broader foreign policy debate, because there are many aspects that need further explanation. First and foremost, the notion that Rand Paul is a “committed isolationist” is nothing short of ridiculous. In fact, it’s embarrassing that someone with the level of foreign policy knowledge Rubio possesses would lower himself to such vapid sloganeering.
It’s not “isolationist” to echo Ronald Reagan, who kept lines of diplomatic communication open with the Soviet Union during the Cold War and prevented escalation. Nor is it, despite Rubio’s claim – echoed by Fiorina and Bush – “isolationist” to oppose the institution of a no-fly zone in Syria, which is a de facto commitment to shooting down planes – potentially Russian ones – and to reasonably conclude that doing so could lead to an otherwise avoidable war. In fact, David French, a National Review commentator who is far more hawkish than Paul, happens to agree with him here.
As far as foreign policy strains go, Paul is in the realist camp. This makes him more moderate than Rubio, who’s about as ideologically hawkish as they come. But that moderation in no way makes Paul, who has called for airstrikes to combat ISIS and believes in diplomatic American leadership, an “isolationist.” Rubio should, and I suspect does, know better. But that’s the issue with a format in which soundbites matter more than policy details. Rubio may have “won” the micro-debate if viewers believe his platitudes about American leadership stand in contrast to what Paul believes – which in reality, they don’t.
Anyone familiar with Paul’s record in the Senate knows that he’s for a strong defense. In fact, this past spring, Paul introduced an amendment to increase military spending by the $696 billion Rubio supported within the legislation in question. Paul offered his amendment, which included offsets elsewhere in the budget, as a message to his colleagues that there are ways to increase military spending in a fiscally responsible manner, but it requires cutting other areas. Rubio rejected the amendment, but voted to increase spending by that much anyway. And therein lies the problem with Rubio, and frankly most of the Republican Party.
There’s a strong “I’ll increase your spending if you increase mine” mentality that permeates Washington. Republicans are far too quick to pile on to our $18.5 trillion debt, without even looking for cuts elsewhere, as long as they can file the bill under “Pentagon spending” – which contains its fair share of non-military waste. And like Rubio, they’ll often resort to the deployment of nonsensical insults like “ISOLATIONIST!” when the manner in which they conduct themselves fiscally is questioned. It’s the Republican version of Democrats who invoke grandmothers being pushed off of cliffs whenever conservatives try to reform entitlements.
As someone who agrees with Rand Paul on the virtues of a strong defense tempered with fiscal restraint, I hope the small exchange he and Rubio were able to have during the last debate revealed to viewers that there are two distinct schools of thought in this area. It’s my sincere wish that Paul sufficiently conveyed that fiscal conservatism and a strong military aren’t mutually exclusive.
In the limited time he had, Paul wasn’t able to deliver a lecture on the virtues of a foreign policy realism unmoored by the ideological constraints of a neoconservatism that, in my view naively, assumes our government is capable of centrally planning on an international scale. Rubio may have won the emotional soundbite battle, but Paul sounded like the responsible adult asking how we’re going to pay for the fantasy world Rubio rhetorically occupies. The Republican Party would undoubtedly benefit from a longer debate on these two foreign policy worldviews moving forward. Hopefully, conservatives will be given the opportunity within the context of this presidential election. We’re lucky, as a movement, to have able defenders of both strains in Paul and Rubio.
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Corie Whalen Stephens is a libertarian-conservative activist and writer based in Houston, Texas.
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