Rand Paul should not have been on the Las Vegas stage Tuesday night for the fifth Republican presidential debate. The network hosting it, CNN, flouted its own rules for participation to squeeze him in on the ninth and final podium—funny enough, at the far right of the stage. The decision was rightfully protested by Rachel Maddow, whom I once worked for at MSNBC and who, five years ago, conducted perhaps the most significant interview of Paul’s political career. But I wonder whether she, like me, ended up happy that he was a part of the conversation after all. While Paul didn’t wholly adhere to the facts and went overboard on some points—as he is wont to do—it is inarguable the senator from Kentucky emerged as a key figure during the debate.
The topic of the night was directly in Paul’s strike zone. Given the other candidates’ rabid Islamophobic fear-mongering since the San Bernardino terrorist shooting earlier this month—coupled with a cable news network’s hunger for ratings—it was likely inevitable that the debate would focus entirely on foreign policy and a very specific kind of terrorism. (Not the foremost domestic terror threat posed by home-grown right-wing extremism, nor the misogynist brand embodied by Robert Dear, the shooter who murdered three people in a November attack on a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs.) Nearly all the GOP candidates and CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer discussed on Tuesday night was the kind of terrorism associated with radicals espousing Islam. But that gave Paul a chance to shine during the discussions about military force and surveillance—which, not coincidentally, are virtually the only policy areas where he remains an actual libertarian. Paul stood out in a debate lacking in viable ideas for avoiding another endless cycle of war and the continued infringement of personal liberty.
After warning that regime change in Syria would only exacerbate the challenge presented by ISIS, Paul confronted the reckless and alarming suggestions Republican frontrunner Donald Trump made earlier in the debate that bombing the families of terrorists and closing parts of the Internet might be necessary to alleviate the terrorist threat. “That entails getting rid of the First Amendment, okay? No small feat,” Paul said. “If you are going to kill the families of terrorists, realize that there’s something called the Geneva Convention we’re going to have to pull out of. It would defy every norm that is America.”
He called out Rubio for supporting increased surveillance by law enforcement—an issue that Rubio was using to paint Ted Cruz as insufficiently tough on terror. But the exchange Paul had with fellow also-ran candidate Chris Christie about Russian planes was a pivotal moment in the debate, exposing the paper-thin machismo and proud ignorance of the Republican field during this election cycle.
In an October interview with The Washington Post, Paul had deemed the idea of a no-fly zone over Syria a terrible one. “That’s drawing a red line in the sky,” he told reporter David Weigel. “Once you draw a red line, and people cross it, what happens? Now we’re talking about an incident that could lead to World War III.”
On Tuesday night, Blitzer asked Christie whether he would shoot down Russian aircraft if one or more encroached over such a no-fly zone. “Not only would I be prepared to do it, I would do it. A no-fly zone means a no-fly zone, Wolf. That’s what it means.” A decent amount of the crowd clapped for that. “See, maybe—maybe because I’m from New Jersey, I just have this kind of plain-language hangup,” Christie added, emphasizing he would tell it to Russian president Vladimir Putin straight that the zone applied to him, too. “Yes, we would shoot down the planes of Russian pilots if in fact they were stupid enough to think that this president was the same feckless weakling that the president we have in the Oval Office is right now.”
Calling the same president he was hugging after Hurricane Sandy a “feckless weakling” was just the latest performance from the fake “tough guy” Christie, a Sopranos cosplayer in elective office and the Republican Party’s chief bully before Trump showed up. But this is the kind of careless bloviating that today’s conservative base eats up with the vigor and restraint of a glutton left alone at a Christmas buffet. Even as he wakes this morning and wipes the remains of last night’s rhetoric from the corners of his mouth, the hard-right Republican voter may not realize that when Blitzer tossed to Paul for a response, he elicited the most sobering moment of the night.
“Well, I think if you’re in favor of World War III, you have your candidate,” Paul said, earning applause. “My goodness, what we want in a leader is someone with judgment, not someone who is so reckless as to stand on the stage and say, ‘Yes, I’m jumping up and down; I’m going to shoot down Russian planes.’ Russia already flies in that airspace. It may not be something we’re in love with, the fact that they’re there, but they were invited by Iraq and by Syria to fly in that airspace.” Paul added that Hillary Clinton also supports a Syria no-fly zone—she called for one in October—but he circled back to criticizing the kind of leadership that GOP candidates like Christie are demonstrating during this long job interview process.
“We need to confront Russia from a position of strength, but we don’t need to confront Russia from a point of recklessness that would lead to war,” Paul said, before dropping a zinger about the Bridgegate scandal. “I mean, I think when we think about the judgment of someone who might want World War III, we might think about someone who might shut down a bridge because they don’t like their friends.” Christie shrugged off the dis, but the damage was done.
I don’t want Rand Paul anywhere near the White House, except perhaps to visit the next Democratic president. He baited Rubio with a xenopobic untruth during the immigration discussion Tuesday night. I generally find his domestic platform abhorrent, and his remarks to Maddow in 2010 about the Civil Rights Act remain, to me, disqualifying.
But his presence in the race is serving a key purpose in a Republican political moment permeated by the kind of across-the-board bombast we haven’t seen since the days of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace. Republican candidates, Donald Trump and Christie in particular, have a politics fed by the tough-guy act that their passionate audiences crave, without betraying any understanding of the consequences of unfettered warmongering.
But why would they? No one on the Republicans’ presidential varsity roster has any experience in the military or, like Clinton, substantive foreign diplomacy experience. (At least when John McCain was doing his own tough-guy stuff in 2008, he had the imprimatur of his own war service and imprisonment.) Trump and others in the field are proving that you just need to talk bold to win conservative hearts; it’s irrelevant how many people you talk about casually spying on or murdering to pacify overblown fears of terrorist attacks here in the United States.
Polling as low as he is, Paul may not prove to be an antidote to all this talk. But it was still heartening to see him—to see someone—inject some sensibility into a debate that seemed more a measurement of manhood than of presidential qualifications.