Rand Paul is the two-word answer to the question “Why should the Democrats hope Bernie Sanders runs in the Democratic primaries?” These days the only thing that may be expanding faster than U.S. military commitments around the globe is the number of Americans looking for leaders to take the country in another direction. They’re not going to find one in Hillary Clinton – or any other candidate likely to pass Democratic Party-establishment muster, either. But whether we like or not, the fact is that when Kentucky Senator and Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul talks about America’s place in the world he sounds a lot different – and he often sounds a lot better. So unless we want the only 2016 non-militarist presidential option to be a supporter of free-market health care, banning abortion, privatizing social security, loosening restrictions on oil companies, as well as a general opponent of environmental regulation and restricting campaign spending, we’d better hope someone else gets in the race.
That goes even for the “There is no alternative to Hillary” crowd – or at least it should. After all, a whole lot of them – maybe most – have positions well to the left of hers, which is to say they opposed the Iraq War, support a national health care system not managed by the for-profit insurance industry, desire a profound funding shift from the military budget to social welfare and education, and so forth. And while it may, in fact, be the case – as they might argue – that no one with politics any better than Clinton’s can win the White House in two years, to think that this ends the discussion is to fail to understand the role that presidential campaigns – and primaries in particular – play – or could play – in determining what might be possible down the road.
Let’s be clear about a couple of things for starters. First of all, neither Sanders nor Paul is likely to win one of the nominations. For one thing, major party nominations don’t generally go to Senators who do things like engage in lengthy filibuster speeches, as Sanders did in 2011 in objection to continuing tax breaks for the wealthy and Paul in 2013 over drone warfare. Second, the point isn’t that Sanders has particularly defined or distinguished himself on foreign policy issues. He has, for the most part, concentrated – and shone – on domestic bread-and-butter issues. In fact, Paul arguably has the better foreign policy record and it will actually be quite interesting to see how Sanders chooses to define himself in that arena, should he choose to run. But what is crucial here is what Sanders has not done – which is build a career on expanding an apparently never-ending “war on terror” – as former Secretary of State Clinton has.
Despite general expectation that Paul will dial back his deviation from Capitol Hill foreign policy orthodoxy in pursuit of the presidency, it certainly hasn’t started yet. If anything, his recent charge that American military interventions have resulted in the creation of a “jihadist wonderland” – along with his argument that it is Bush Administration hawks who bear prime responsibility for the current Iraq chaos – has only raised his profile as a foreign policy critic.
And, as the video of a five-year old Paul speech that Mother Jones unearthed earlier this year shows, there appears to be more where that came from. Unlike the case with Mitt Romney, the last Republican presidential candidate to have one of his campaign speeches distributed by the magazine, Paul was not caught denigrating the general public (or at least the 47 percent of the people who Romney said “believe that they are victims.”) Paul’s target that day was former Vice President Dick Cheney whom he faulted for pushing war on Iraq not because he believed Iraq had any connection to 9/11, but more in the interest of his former company Halliburton, which Paul accused of making shoddy equipment that failed to adequately protect the lives of American personnel. In short, so far as lambasting mainstream American foreign policy goes, Paul is setting a brisk pace.
To say that it would be a missed opportunity if Paul’s critique were to go unmatched in the next presidential season is to seriously understate the importance of the situation. For in addition to their central function of choosing the people who will run the show over the next four years, presidential campaigns serve up a political menu for vast numbers – voters and non voters alike – who aren’t necessarily regularly focusing on such things. And not only does it matter what people hear, but it matters where and how they hear it. Any of us who see our opposition to militarism and out-of-control military spending as part of a broader economic justice/feminist/environmental-interventionist perspective should be troubled if the only fundamental challenge to our disastrous foreign policy that the casual voter encounters comes from a Tea Party backer.
The opposition to Sanders making the race in the Democratic Party presidential primaries is, of course, formidable – in both directions. But any Democratic party-liners who think Sanders’s past resolutely non-Democratic Party stance disqualifies him from making that run may want to consider the possibility that his candidacy could be the only reason for many anti-war voters not to turn to an otherwise right-wing Republican. On the other side, those who can’t stand the thought of him running a race inside the party he has so long avoided might want to ask if this isn’t the route for him to run a race on the issues rather than the question of whether the real story isn’t whether he’s a “spoiler.”
Will Bernie Sanders match this challenge? I don’t know, but I certainly hope he tries.