If Jeb Bush’s biggest vulnerability may be immigration, Rand Paul’s leading problem as a presidential aspirant is his views on foreign policy. Despite attempts to recast himself as a “realist,” Paul has broken with the foreign policy not merely of George W. Bush, but of most Republicans of the past 60 years. Republican elites are starting to take notice, and warning that they will seek to ensure that Paul will not be the nominee. How much an obstacle will Paul’s foreign policy views be? And how will his critics try to undermine him?

Except in times of crisis, most voters care little about foreign policy. By contrast, elites care pretty strongly about it. (I suspect older Republican leaders, with memories of the Cold War, are more likely to give the issue priority). While Republican foreign policy thinkers come from a variety of schools, from realist to neoconservative, very few truck in Paulism.
Outside of the pro-Israel community and its Christian Right allies, there aren’t any conservative mass-membership organizations devoted to foreign policy. But most of the leading conservative organs of opinion have little use for Paulism. Meanwhile, both Rand and Ron Paul have showed a taste for conspiracism (and conspiracist allies) that can’t sit well with foreign policy elites of any stripes.

Looking at mass opinion on foreign policy, Republicans display hawkish opinions on most, but not all, issues. According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of Republicans take the more hawkish side, and are more hawkish than Democrats, on the following issues:


Republicans are less distinctive on these issues:

surveillance to prevent terrorism
(Republicans have become more concerned with civil liberties since Obama
has become president, especially since the Snowden revelations began).
in Libya and Syria, where one sees the same pattern
: Republicans
began as more hawkish than the public, but became more dovish as the debate
.  In all of these cases,
Republicans have become more hostile to a position associated with President
Obama, especially when there are potential harms to Americans.

Public opinion on foreign policy is famously ill-formed and ill-informed, but if one can tease out any common themes among Republicans’ views, they resemble either the Cold Warriorism of Ronald Reagan (lots of tough talk about potential foes, an assertive American nationalism) or the realism of Republican presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to George H. W. Bush (acceptance of traditional power politics, caution about using force). There is far less that supports either Paulism or the neoconservatism of George W. Bush.

Anti-Paul forces would be best suited by painting him as “weak”
in regards to potential enemies of the USA, from Russia to Iran, and warning that he can’t be counted on to defend Israel. Rand Paul would be better off picking issues where he can side with many Republican voters against President Obama:, e.g., NSA surveillance. Neither side should bring up Iraq and Afghanistan. Republicans seem to hold views reminiscent of conservative attitudes in the aftermath of the Vietnam War: a noble cause ill-served by politicians. That does not lend itself well to political messaging.

It’s clear that Republican foreign policy elites are united in opposition to Paulism; it also looks like there is much in mass Republican opinion to which they could appeal. In other words, there are cues to be sent, and voters ready to receive them. But given that most of these elites are little-known to the general public, they will need the assistance of skilled cue-givers – officeholders, opinion leaders, big donors — and an array of means of giving those cues, both through free media and paid advertising. I’m skeptical of Rand Paul’s ability to win the GOP nomination, but his best bet would seem to lie with keeping some of those folks neutral.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

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Richard Skinner teaches at the School of Professional and Extended Studies at American University and is the author of More Than Money: Interest Group Action in Congressional Elections. He tweets at @richardmskinner.