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Back in Washington after a long break last week, Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul was stepping off the escalator in the Capitol basement on his way to lunch, when a reporter approached him with a straightforward question.
Why, asked Weekly Standard writer John McCormack, did Paul change his position about launching a U.S. military strike against the Islamic State, a terrorist group that has seized territory in Iraq and Syria and beheaded two American journalists?
“You were still uncertain about bombing back in August. Now you support it,” McCormack said. “What in your mind has changed?”
Instead of explaining why he recently came out in support of launching a military assault on the group — with authority from Congress — despite his warning earlier this summer against getting involved, Paul replied that nothing had changed.
“I still have exactly the same policy,” Paul said. “And that is that intervention militarily should be through an act of Congress.”
Well sure, Paul has always believed that Congress should have a say in military action abroad. But that wasn’t McCormack’s question. Instead of answering the question posed to him, which was a routine request to articulate if he thinks new circumstances call for a different response, Paul claimed perfect consistency.
Paul has made a curious habit of doing this, even when the facts show that his views, and, more critically, the way he is willing to speak about them, have shifted.
Over the summer, the first-term Kentucky lawmaker has offered a conflicting set of explanations of his core policy positions, reviving attention to evasions and denials that date back to his entry onto the political scene. From questions about the Civil Rights Act to his positions on foreign aid and military intervention, Paul has changed the way he describes his positions — and, in some cases, changed his mind completely — while simultaneously denying he’s done so.
Taking a new position is not, in itself, devastating for a politician: Elected officials change their minds all the time, often with good reason and in response to changing circumstances. And they can escape charges of flip-flopping if they provide a sound reason for the shift.
President Barack Obama has “evolved,” has he called it, on several topics, including the hot-button issue of same-sex marriage. Mitt Romney convincingly made the case to social conservatives that his views on abortion had changed over time to become more conservative, saying that he had been “wrong.”
But instances like these, in which the politician survives his transition to a new outlook, are overshadowed by the many others in which candidates have been severely damaged by charges of revising their positions. The danger, as John Kerry learned the hard way during the 2004 presidential contest, is that early criticism and being labeled as a flip-flopper has a way of morphing into a defining framework through which everything else a politician says is viewed. Once the narrative is set, it’s hard to reverse it.
More than a year before the presidential primary voting begins, Paul has already reached a point where he is at risk of falling into Kerry territory, launching a campaign amid a drumbeat of criticism about his changes of heart. Worse, over the summer he’s exhibited an increasingly visible habit of lashing out at those who point out his changes in position, leading critics to start raising questions about his temperament.
Democrats, knowing that he’s considering a presidential run, are sharpening their knives and launching into an effort to frame the narrative on Paul early. Citing his shifts on seven different topics, the Democratic National Committee slammed Paul in a press release Friday proclaiming “Rand Paul is making us dizzy.” Democratic Party operatives are building an archive of videos and news clippings that they plan to release drip by drip over the next two years, in an effort to devastate Paul’s ambitions and raise questions about his truthfulness and personality.
Already, they have plenty to work with.
Paul’s difficulty in defending and sticking to the most unpopular of his libertarian opinions — beliefs that helped him build a devoted base — dates back to the early years of his political career, during his initial run for the Senate in Kentucky just four years ago.
In April 2010, Paul sat down for a taped interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal, where a member of the paper’s editorial board asked if he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law that made it illegal for private businesses to turn away customers based on the color of their skin.
“I like the Civil Rights Act in the sense that it ended discrimination in all public domains, and I’m all in favor of that,” Paul said.
However, its provision governing private businesses rankled with him: “I don't like the idea of telling private business owners — I abhor racism. I think it’s a bad business decision to ever exclude anybody from your restaurant — but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership. But I think there should be absolutely no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding, and that’s most of what I think the Civil Rights Act was about to my mind.”
Paul suggested that the First Amendment was the appropriate model for civil rights law — providing, as it does, maximum protection to offensive speech — rather than regulation of the private sector. “In a free society, we will tolerate boorish people, who have abhorrent behavior,” he said, “but if we're civilized people, we publicly criticize that, and don't belong to those groups, or don't associate with those people.”
A few weeks after the Courier-Journal published the exchange, Paul went on MSNBC for a follow-up interview with host Rachel Maddow. Should the federal government allow private businesses to withhold service to black customers, she asked?
“I'm not in favor of any discrimination of any form,” Paul said. “I would never belong to any club that excluded anybody for race. … But I think what's important about this debate is not written into any specific ‘gotcha’ on this, but asking the question: What about freedom of speech? Should we limit speech from people we find abhorrent? Should we limit racists from speaking? I don't want to be associated with those people, but I also don't want to limit their speech in any way in the sense that we tolerate boorish and uncivilized behavior because that's one of the things freedom requires is that we allow people to be boorish and uncivilized, but that doesn't mean we approve of it.”
He continued: “Had I been there, there would have been some discussion over one of the titles of the Civil Rights Act, and I think that's a valid point and still a valid discussion, because the thing is, if we want to harbor in on private businesses and their policies, then you have to have the discussion about, do you want to abridge the First Amendment as well?”
Paul was referring to Title II of the Act, which made it illegal for private businesses that provide “public accommodation” to discriminate based on race.
Two days later, faced with unrelenting criticism of his questioning of a central part of the Civil Rights Act, Paul appeared to give up on the idea of engaging in long-winded discussions about the law and the importance of preserving the freedom to act in an offensive and racist manner.
“I would have voted yes,” Paul concisely told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer when asked if he would have supported the Civil Rights Act. He didn’t say much more than that.
Paul, of course, went on to survive the firestorm over his comments and won the Senate seat later that year. He received about 13 percent of the black vote in Kentucky, according to exit polls.
Fast-forward four years to July 2014, when Paul returned to MSNBC for a joint interview with New Jersey Democrat Sen. Cory Booker on “The Cycle.” The hosts of the show dredged up his old comments about civil rights, and Paul didn’t take kindly to the line of questioning.
"Have I ever had a philosophical discussion about all aspects of it? Yeah, and I learned my lesson: To come on MSNBC and have a philosophical discussion, the liberals will come out of the woodwork and they will go crazy and say you're against the Civil Rights Act and that you're some terrible racist,” Paul said.
"I've been attacked by half a dozen people on your network trying to say I'm opposed to the Civil Rights Act and somehow now I've changed. So I'm not really willing to engage with people who are misrepresenting my viewpoint on this. I have never been against the Civil Rights Act."
Later that night, Paul voiced frustration at MSNBC during a speech at the Young Americans for Liberty conference in Arlington, Va., calling the network’s hosts "partisan cranks and hacks" and accusing them of making up "lousy lies" about his positions. He refused to go back on the network until it apologized.
The network did not apologize, but responded with a segment on “The Rachel Maddow Show” that re-aired the statements he made in 2010. Maddow raised questions about Paul’s “temperament” in how he responded to a reporter who brought up his remarks.
“Rather than explaining that he’s evolved, that he’s changed his mind, he no longer has those objections to the Civil Rights Act, he’s now insisting that those 2010 interviews never happened, and he never admitted to having those views and he certainly never had those views,” Maddow said.
Aid to Israel
The very next week, while Paul was in Nebraska campaigning for Republican Senate candidate Ben Sasse, Yahoo News asked him if he still believed that the United States should stop offering federal aid to Israel, a position he held and defended when he first became a senator in 2011.
Again Paul insisted that he had never held his earlier position, arguing that his proposal to cut all foreign aid was being mischaracterized.
Yet early in his Senate tenure, Paul proposed a budget plan that would have cut foreign aid, including assistance to Israel. In an interview with ABC’s Jonathan Karl at the time, he explained it thusly: "I'm not singling out Israel. I support Israel. I want to be known as a friend of Israel, but not with money you don't have. … I think they're an important ally, but I also think that their per capita income is greater than probably three-fourths of the rest of the world. Should we be giving free money or welfare to a wealthy nation? I don't think so."
When Yahoo News asked Paul if he still believed the things he had proposed four years ago, he denied he’d made the proposal.
“I haven’t really proposed that in the past,” he said.
When Yahoo News tried to point to interviews and videos showing that he, in fact, had held that position, Paul got snippy.
“You can mistake my position, but then I’ll answer the question,” Paul said. “That has not been a position — a legislative position — we have introduced to phase out or get rid of Israel’s aid. That’s the answer to that question. Israel has always been a strong ally of ours and I appreciate that. I voted just this week to give money — more money — to the Iron Dome, so don’t mischaracterize my position on Israel.”
Other news outlets quickly picked up the story and pointed out that yes, Paul had in fact supported a plan that would have resulted in the termination of aid to Israel. But Paul remained firm in his denial that his 2011 approach, if adopted by his peers in the Senate, would have cut off all aid to Israel.
The Islamic State and military action in Syria
No subject has caused more consternation for Paul in his public life than foreign policy, specifically when it comes to the question of the use of force against other nations and the terrorist group the Islamic State. Paul has asserted himself a believer in restraint on military matters, a position that has led hawks to accuse him of being an “isolationist,” a clunky term that he feels fails to describe his views on the subject.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published on June 19 under the subhead, “There’s no good case for U.S. military intervention now,” Paul argued against using U.S. military might to combat IS in Iraq and urging caution in using airstrikes in the region. “ … While we may not completely rule out airstrikes, there are many questions that need to be addressed first. What would airstrikes accomplish? We know that Iran is aiding the Iraqi government against ISIS. Do we want to, in effect, become Iran's air force? What's in this for Iran? Why should we choose a side, and if we do, who are we really helping?”
Paul took criticism from both Republicans and Democrats for this position. Texas Gov. Rick Perry accused Paul of holding a view that would increase the threat of terrorism, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum called Paul’s policies “wrong for America's security and prosperity.” A spokesman from the Democratic National Committee said Paul “blames America for all the problems in the world.”
With the American public outraged by video showing the beheading of the American journalist James Foley, Paul sought on Sept. 4 to rebrand on the question of the Islamic State, or IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in a Time magazine op-ed entitled, “I Am Not an Isolationist.” In it, the senator called for using lethal force against the IS, with congressional approval, and promised he would have hit them harder even than the president has.
“[W]hile my predisposition is to less intervention, I do support intervention when our vital interests are threatened,” Paul wrote. “If I had been in President Obama’s shoes, I would have acted more decisively and strongly against ISIS. I would have called Congress back into session — even during recess. This is what President Obama should have done. He should have been prepared with a strategic vision, a plan for victory and extricating ourselves. He should have asked for authorization for military action and would have, no doubt, received it.”
Even some leading libertarians, who thought they knew Paul’s views, responded with confusion at his latest stated position on IS.
"For a nanosecond, I thought we might see a presidential contest between Dove Rand and Hawk Hillary. Obviously I was wrong,” Sheldon Richman, vice president of the Future of Freedom Foundation, told Reason magazine, the leading American libertarian journal. “Why did anyone think Rand Paul was a libertarian?”
Reason’s editor-in-chief, Matt Welch, expressed frustration with Paul’s handling of foreign policy questions and accused him of being “almost maddeningly slippery” when addressing the topic. His colleague, Reason senior editor Jacob Sullum, was also skeptical: "The sudden evaporation of Paul's doubts reeks of political desperation.”
Meanwhile, public opinion has shifted toward supporting military action against IS, with more Americans declaring that they are in favor of airstrikes following the beheadings of Foley and another American journalist, Steven Sotloff.
All of which culminated in McCormack’s still unanswered query in the Capitol basement on Wednesday: What changed?
It is a question — like the others — that Paul will have to answer if he runs for president.