Former Texas Congressman Ron Paul was not the perfect antiwar candidate sent down from above, but you would be forgiven for thinking so if you compare the 2008 and 2012 presidential races to the 2016 one.
Ron Paul was not without fault (early immigration fearmongering, the vote for the Afghanistan Authorization for Use of Military Force) but he was the rare politician who got better and more interested in peace and freedom the longer he stayed in office. The 2012 election was basically a victory lap for him, but one that involved the vital message of peace and nonintervention. There’s a reason that he’s so beloved, and that YouTube videos with titles that call Paul a seer for predicting more terrorist attacks on the US back in 1998 are amusingly common.
And though he’s never been as purely principled in rhetoric, Rand Paul is still much closer to his dad than he is to the rest of the political masses.
How can you tell? The Rand Paul-shaped hole on stage on Thursday night left quite an impression. The Pauls have a special gift for changing the conversation, if only enough that the rest of the candidates have uncomfortably acknowledged the arguments raised. Other candidates echoed Ron Paul’s anti-Fed stance in his debates. And Rand Paul’s relatively early push for criminal justice reform has not been given its due credit thanks to the stampede of politicians who now want us to know they were always for fixing the system (even if they spent decades in DC perpetuating it).
Rand Paul is incredibly frustrating. He has made moves to pander towards hawks and their supporters, which has resulted in the alienation of his libertarian and antiwar supporters. Naturally, the hawks still think Rand is an isolationist dove on his most Israeli-pandering, bomb-supporting day. And if you’re for open borders – or simply think that the US owes something to refugees from nations we helped destroy – Rand has been extremely unsatisfactory there, especially lately.
And he’s still miles better than anyone else being offered the job.
During both the “kids table” debate starring former Hewlett-Packer CEO Carly Fiorina, former Sen. Rick Santorum, and former Gov. Mike Huckabee (where Rand was supposed to be) and during the “serious” one starring the big candidates, not one anti-interventionist sentiment was expressed. Nor was the Fourth Amendment or the right to privacy defended. Fiorina and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took particular umbrage at the recent restrictions placed on the National Security Agency (NSA). Sen. Marco Rubio also tautologically suggested that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was a traitor who should be tried for treason
Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz put all their interventionist cards on the table whenever the topic of war came up. Sleepy-eyed neurosurgeon Ben Carson – who previously said he did not support the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan – jumped on the Cruz and Trump bandwagon by suggesting that the US be more unrestrained in its bombing campaigns.
Huckabee and Christie vaguely suggested that wars should be better planned when the US engages in them. Christie even said “we’re not the world’s policemen” but that ended with “we need to stand up and be ready.” Jeb Bush actually said the same not policeman phrase while still desperately fear mongering about the state of the world. Ohio Gov. John Kasich gamely suggested that maybe US ally Saudi Arabia also had some flaws. Former Gov. Jeb Bush suggested a peace through strength vibe, while bemoaning the many imagined military cuts America has suffered. And that was quite literally all in terms of interventionist, hawkish hesitation.
None of this is to say that Rand Paul is the antiwar candidate of our dreams when he is there, or that he didn’t make several major blunders in terms of pandering to the hawks. You can find Rand viciously disappointing for all sorts of reasons while still admitting that he is better than the screeching masses who confuse chest-puffing with policy.
The candidates who mentioned the less than 24-hour period this week in which ten American sailors were detained by Iran after they drifted into their waters did so with as much hyperbole as they could muster. Cruz implied he would bomb Iran if such an incident occurred under his watch as Commander in Chief. Now, Rand Paul and similarly decent politicians such as Rep. Justin Amash were disappointingly bad on the Iran deal. However, the difference between Rand Paul discussing the detainment of the sailors versus Ted Cruz doing so is worth noticing.
In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews earlier this week, Paul made some tedious comments about Iran not being “civilized” previously all the time, but he also expressed a general optimism about the good sign of progress that was Iran releasing the sailors (this was echoed by Papa Paul on his Liberty Report). Cruz would prefer “the full force and fury of the United States” as a response. Christie was horrified that Secretary of State John Kerry suggested the quick release of the soldiers was a positive thing. Fiorina precipitated this idea with her opening remarks in the kiddie debate, showing that she can bellicose with the best of the men. And in his closing statement, Trump went full melodrama, talking about “75 construction workers” shedding tears the day before over the detainment of those sailors.
All in all, it’s astounding that candidates who profess to be all about toughness and strength can sound so juvenile and whiny about other nations behaving in any manner besides that of US puppet. It was a disturbing spectacle first and foremost because it lacked even a moderately anti-interventionist candidate. And though you may be disgusted with Rand Paul for good reason, he was the missing element. Especially considering his strong showings in the last several debates, in which he managed to remember he used to have principles that set him apart from the rest of his party.
No politician is free from error. The stakes in politics – as undignified as the proceedings are – are life and death, both here and abroad. Ron Paul was a stirring figure who got better the longer he was in office, thereby defying the laws of DC physics. He also made – and makes – antiwar arguments from a moral perspective. But he wasn’t – and isn’t – perfect.
Neither is Rand. When Rand talks antiwar, he tends to do so tentatively and often fiscally. He has made terrible choices in his support of sanctions, and in his apparent belief that hawks could be won over to his side if he became more like them. And we still need him, because Rand Paul is all we’ve got. When he’s there, it changes the other candidates – makes them pay even brief attention to criminal justice reform and cautiousness in intervention. Without Rand on stage, the GOP is all bluster and war drums. It took him not being there to fully demonstrate how much we need Rand Paul after all.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.