The war is on – no, not that war, this war: I’m talking about the GOP establishment’s war on Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, whose presidential campaign has taken wing and soared. And it isn’t just the Karl Roves and Peter Kings of this world who are up in arms over the prospect of an anti-interventionist libertarian in the White House: they’re getting plenty of tactical support from "liberals" like David Corn.
Why do they hate him?
The Rovians hate him because he challenges the whole Fox News–neocon right-wing paradigm that has kept the GOP a dwindling minority party ever since the Bush era ended with a whimper. The progressives hate him because he is the most likely candidate – at the moment – to be facing Hillary Clinton in 2016, and they know they’ll have a hard time selling a candidate who still refuses to second guess her 2003 vote for the Iraq war. So the two groups have a common enemy – which, in politics, is enough to cement a working alliance between two supposedly antithetical forces.
Of course they aren’t really antithetical: while Establishment Republicans and Establishment Democrats duke it out every election, it’s not an ideological fight so much as a battle for the spoils. And when it comes to foreign policy, "politics stops at the water’s edge," as that old reprobate Arthur Vandenberg used to say: left and right are united for the Empire.
That explains why Mother Jones Washington correspondent David Corn popped up with footage of Rand Paul attacking Dick Cheney for switching his position on Iraq. Corn rips Rand’s remarks out of a half hour long talk, in the relevant portion of which, Sen. Paul – who wasn’t a Senator yet, he was campaigning for his father – goes into a long disquisition on the military-industrial complex. Citing Eisenhower and answering critics who say Ron Paul is weak on defense, Rand cites Cheney’s answer to neoconnish questions about why George Herbert Walker Bush didn’t go all the way to Baghdad during the first Gulf war: there would be a civil war, there would be "chaos, we’d be sucked into a quagmire. In short, all the reasons Ron and Rand gave for opposing Bush II’s invasion. Rand goes on to opine:
"And this is Dick Cheney saying this. But, you know, a couple hundred million dollars later Dick Cheney earns from Halliburton, he comes back into government. Now Halliburton’s got a billion-dollar no-bid contract in Iraq. You know, you hate to be so cynical that you think some of these corporations are able to influence policy, but I think sometimes they are. Most of the people on these [congressional] committees have a million dollars in their bank account all from different military-industrial contractors. We don’t want our defense to be defined by people who make money off of the weapons."
Here’s what Corn makes of this:
"The message is clear: Cheney, a corporate shill, was more loyal to Halliburton – and the millions of dollars he earned from the company – than to the United States, and he and Halliburton manipulated the country into the Iraq War. Paul was essentially accusing Cheney of a profound betrayal: using 9/11 to start a war to profit Halliburton."
Only Corn’s first sentence has any relationship to reality: yes, the "message is clear" indeed, except to uncomprehending "progressives" who’ve hung out in Washington for too long. Rand was describing a system in his talk, the Washington-based culture of crony-capitalist militarism that employs and enriches some very powerful people in this country. The merchants of death, as an early 20th century bestseller dubbed them, give millions to candidates – and Washington thinktanks – for whom war propaganda is mother’s milk. This isn’t about Dick Cheney – it’s about how Washington works.
In explaining how Cheney came to such a dramatically different view on Iraq, Rand was quite right to point to the Vice President’s five year immersion in the corporate culture of Haliburton as one important factor in his subsequent evolution. Why wouldn’t being CEO of a company that provides "services" to US occupiers incline one to favor American military intervention overseas? Yet it is seriously understating the radicalism of Rand’s view to reduce it, as Corn does, to Cheney was "using 9/11 to start a war to profit Haliburton." The Senator’s critique is more fundamental.
Remember what Rand actually said is that big defense contractors "influence policy" – which is a far cry from dictating it. Later in the tape he mocks John McCain for his "bomb bomb Iran" Beach Boys act, and goes on to say that war should be the absolute last resort: he’s visibly appalled by the way in which these matters of life and death are trivialized by neocons like McCain and Richard Perle. His point was that these people – including "most of the people on these congressional committees" – live in a world where war is the first option.
The system we’ve set up has a built-in bias, like all government programs, in favor of exponential expansion, and Cheney was a cog in that machine. And so while Cheney’s Haliburton connection wasn’t the determining factor in his Iraq policy turnaround, his experience there undoubtedly influenced his foreign policy views in general – and whatever personal profits he gained in the process sure didn’t hurt.
I can’t imagine Corn disagrees with this sentiment: but he doesn’t say so in his piece, which is devoted to giving ample ammunition to the Rovians and their neocon allies to take down the Republican frontrunner. Paul’s "accusations about Cheney, 9/11, and Iraq could well provide rich material for questions in presidential debates," he snarks.
Corn is taking a calculated risk here: he may wind up converting the readers of Mother Jones into enthusiastic campaign workers loudly tweeting #RandPaul2016. And isn’t Cheney one of the most disliked political figures in recent history? We already know the neocons hate the Pauls, both of them, equally and irrevocably – and it’s only natural for partisan shills like Corn, who don’t have a principled bone in their bodies, to egg on the Bill Kristols of this world.
Getting beyond all this background noise, however, the real question is: can the junior Senator from Kentucky brush these chirping sectaries aside and build a coalition that defies the old categories of "left" and "right"? Can he unite Midwesterners angered by federal landgrabs with urban millennials sporting Free Snowden t-shirts? It’s the War Party’s worst nightmare: a serious presidential contender who’s serious about fighting for civil liberties and a noninterventionist foreign policy (along with a dose of good old fashioned dose of economic common sense).
This being a Republican presidential primary – yes, we’re talking about that already – there’s been much talk of Rand Paul’s relationship with Ronald Reagan, or, rather, with the ghost of the last Republican to build a broad-based center-right coalition. Jennifer Rubin has chimed in, claiming that the Senator and would-be presidential aspirant has "de-Reaganized" Reagan. Poor Jenn, possibly the most reviled pundit in Washington, mistakes Reagan for Benjamin Netanyahu. She also misses the real significance of the Reagan mystique – and that was his ability to reach out to the other side, in this case the so-called Reagan Democrats, inner city and suburban blue collar families. He managed to split the Democrats’ taken-for-granted constituency and built a new governing majority.
In the context of today’s politics, the demographics are different but the principle of "divide and rule" is the same. The "Paul Democrats" and "Paul Independents" are precisely the kind of younger urban voters both Rand and his father have done such a phenomenal job attracting. These are people Democrats have tended to take for granted – and Rand is the first Republican politician since Reagan to challenge them on this terrain. Which is why Democrats like Corn, and the other partisan hacks masquerading as "journalists" – Rachel Maddow comes to mind – have it in for Sen. Paul.
As for the Rovians and their neocon Deep Thinkers, their unappeasable hate for the Senator is due to his last name – and the knowledge that this isn’t really about Rand Paul or any particular person, it’s about a movement that threatens to overtake them. Once John McCain and Peter King stop being the face of the GOP, the Establishment that manipulates the leadership of both parties is in big trouble.
The last thing the Establishment of both parties wants is a 2016 presidential race pitting an anti-interventionist anti-surveillance Republican against the stridently interventionist Hillary, who long ago declared that the Internet needs "gatekeepers." I would argue that of all the potential candidates, it’s Rand Paul who has the best chance of stopping the Clinton Restoration. Jeb Bush as the candidate would make it a clash of dynasties, with the Clintons an easy winner in that kind of contest. Marco Rubio has limited appeal, and by the time the primaries get going will be polling in the vicinity of John Bolton. Chris Christie is over. David Petraeus, once a neocon favorite, is in disgrace: you only get to have that kind of fun after you’re safely elected. So who’s left?
The Anti-Paul Popular Front is only just beginning to rev up its engines. With David Corn and the Sheldon Adelson-funded Washington Free Beacon leading the charge, this red-brown coalition is determined to spike Sen. Paul’s campaign long before the first primary. The day is young, and so is this smear campaign.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.