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Once the Sequester Is Solved, Rand Paul Will Go Back to Being an Oddball

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

This is a weird moment in American politics. The sequester has just chopped $43 billion out of this year's defense budget and Republicans are pretending not to care. Now Senator Rand Paul is winning kudos for conducting an old-fashioned talking filibuster against drone warfare from Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus ("I think it was completely awesome"). (Click here in the unlikely event you want to watch all 13 hours of Paul's filibuster, and here for a video abridgement from the Washington Post.) With Politico's Lois Romano gushing that the filibuster has abruptly "vaulted [Rand] into the top tier of Republican power players," Paul now says he's "seriously" pondering a 2016 run for president. "I think our party needs something new, fresh and different," Paul told Romano.

We have to figure out how to appeal to the West Coast, New England [and] around the Great Lakes area. We need to figure out how to appeal to the blue-collar voters that voted—that were Democrats that voted for Reagan and I think are drifting back because they see us as the party of the wealthy. … I do want to be part of making the Republican Party again more of a national party, less than a regional party, which I think we're in danger of becoming.

Paul's specific objection to drones is that they might be used to kill U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. His apparent preference for civil liberties over civil rights is one problem he'll likely have running for president. (Paul recently voted against the Violence Against Women Act largely on states-rights grounds, and as recently as last year he argued that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a cruel imposition on property rights.) Paul inhabits approximately the same niche as Haley Barbour, another seemingly strong candidate with a civil rights problem who ultimately decided not to run in 2012. But that isn't the biggest obstacle to a plausible Paul candidacy. The larger problem is Paul's opposition to the U.S. national-security establishment.

In ordinary times, it would be unwise for a Republican seeking the presidential nomination to deny this establishment the right to kill an enemy combatant on U.S. soil—even if that combatant were a U.S. citizen. But these aren't ordinary times. We dwell in Sequesterland, a Brigadoon-like place where the GOP feels free not to define itself though toughness on defense. Even here in Sequesterland, Paul didn't escape condemnation from the Wall Street Journal editorial page ("If Mr. Paul wants to be taken seriously he needs to do more than pull political stunts that fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms") and from Sens. John McCain ("totally unfounded") and Lindsay Graham ("To my party, I'm a bit disappointed that you no longer apparently think we're at war"). But since this is Sequesterland, most other Republicans gave Paul a pass lest they give the public occasion to wonder why, if they're so darned desperate to defend national security, they're bleeding the Pentagon.

They are bleeding the Pentagon, incidentally. As Fred Kaplan has argued forcefully in Slate, the mere likelihood that $43 billion could be sliced out of the Pentagon budget without compromising national defense does not mean that this $43 billion cut is a breeze. As with the civilian cuts, the sequester cuts are across the board and don't really give managers any leeway to prioritize this at the expense of that. Here's Kaplan:

What about the $179 million allotted for modifications to the AH-64 Apache helicopter? How do the Army's managers parse that? And how does anyone, whether in Congress or the Pentagon's comptroller office, perform oversight of that feat, this year and in the near future? Not only is the exercise disruptive and in some cases absurd, it also creates excuses for contractors to bilk the Pentagon after the budget crisis is over, claiming that they suffered cost overruns as a result of inefficiencies brought on by sequestration.

Because this can't possibly last, it won't. One way or another, the GOP will be transported out of Sequesterland, and when that happens Paul will lose his get-out-of-jail-free card.

Remember Chuck Hagel? Former Republican senator from Nebraska? Just before the sequester hit Hagel was confirmed as defense secretary, but his margin was historically narrow because nearly every Senate Republican opposed him. (Paul was one of only four GOP yeas.) The president named a Republican to be secretary of defense, and Senate Republicans (including, for very foggy reasons, Paul) actually gave serious thought to filibustering the nomination. Much of the Republican resistance to Hagel was based, childishly, on the mere fact that Obama wanted him. But much of it was based on Hagel's having taken positions on national security issues that his fellow Republicans judged unacceptably dovish—and Hagel isn't nearly as dovish as Paul is. If Hagel proved unacceptable to the GOP, it's inconceivable that Paul—who less than one month before the 2012 election published an op-ed condemning Mitt Romney for being too hawkish in the Middle East and too willing to increase Pentagon spending—will ever pass muster. And by "the GOP" I don't just mean GOP politicians. I mean voters, too. Those Reagan Democrats whom Paul thinks he can woo in California, New England, and the Great Lakes? They're pretty hawkish. They won't vote for a candidate who's weaker on defense than Barack Obama is.

New York magazine's Jonathan Chait writes that Paul's libertarianism on national security issues "will remain cool with his party only as long as the GOP remains out of the White House." I disagree. I think it will remain cool with his party only as long as the GOP dwells in Sequesterland. Once that little matter gets resolved, Paul will go back to being an oddball. I'm not saying he won't try to get elected president—after all, it runs in the family—but he will never inhabit the "top tier of Republican players." That it looks like he might right now is just a quirk of circumstance.