What may have been the first real clash of the 2016 Republican presidential nomination contest has just occurred, as Rick Perry and Rand Paul targeted each other in less than collegial op-eds about Iraq policy and their broader foreign policy perspectives.

Perry, quickly capitalizing on his return to the national spotlight via the refugee crisis on the border, picked the fight with Paul in a WaPo column that could be boiled down to three words: “Isolationist! Isolationist! Isolationist!” It could be taken as an early sign that Paul’s 2016 opponents won’t make the mistake of his 2010 Senate primary opponent Trey Grayson in giving Paul a virtual pass on his heretical foreign policy views at a time when the subject may represent the most important area of genuine intraparty disagreement.

Paul’s response at Politico Magazine was more persuasive because it attempted something more nuanced than pointing and shouting “Unclean!” (About the only substantive argument is Perry’s piece was that we needed a renewed military engagement with Iraq because some Islamic State militants allegedly hold U.S. passports, a strange new twist on the old Bush administration “flypaper” theory.). More importantly, it showed his three-pronged strategy for dealing with the “isolationist” attacks he will continue to attract: (1) challenging GOP hawks for the mantle of St. Ronald Reagan; (2) pointing to polls showing the extreme unpopularity of warmongering, thus making foreign policy an “electability” issue; and (3) denying the whole premise that he’s that different from other Republicans, in part by talking tough on national security issues that don’t involve military interventions.

Paul’s gotten pretty good at turning what would seem to be “isolationist” positions into emblems of truculence, viz. his makeover of a long-time proposal to cut off assistance to the Palestinian Authority into a “Stand With Israel” posture. But for eons Republicans have ultimately measured their presidential candidates’ acceptability on foreign policy and national security in terms of their willingness either to kill foreigners or spend more money, if not both. No matter how much he dresses up his old man’s non-interventionism in camo patterns and how loudly he plays martial music, so long as Rand Paul opposes every opportunity to kill foreigners while calling for lower defense spending, the “isolationist” label will be a problem for him, as the ghosts of both the Cold War and the War On Terror haunt him. I suspect opponents more skillful than Rick Perry will at some point make that plain.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.