Sen. Rand Paul wants to be taken seriously – as a presidential candidate, as heir to the energetic youth-oriented movement founded by his father, and as a foreign policy Deep Thinker. This last goal was supposed to have been approached, if not reached, by his much-anticipated foreign policy speech delivered at the Heritage Foundation the other day, which was supposed to give wonkish heft to his presidential ambitions.
Barely twenty minutes long, Sen. Paul’s peroration was two thirds Glenn Beck, and one third Robert Taft – with a dash of George Kennan thrown in for good measure. Right off the bat, however, he made the point he wanted to make: I am not my father. To which one can only add: you can say that again.
"Foreign policy," averred Paul the Younger, "is uniquely an arena where we should base decisions on the landscape of the world as it is . . . not as we wish it to be. I see the world as it is. I am a realist, not a neoconservative, nor an isolationist."
What is telling about his opening shot is how deftly he utilizes the language of the War Party to define – and restrict – the parameters of the foreign policy debate. As paleoconservative foreign policy analyst Daniel Larison has tirelessly pointed out, there is no such thing as "isolationism" in American politics: not today, not yesterday, and not ever. No one believes the US should isolate itself from the world and turn this country – connected to the rest of the globe by innumerable ties of trade, sympathy, and kinship – into the Western equivalent of the Hermit Kingdom. "Isolationism" is an epithet rather than a description of anyone’s real views, meant to stifle discussion rather than advance it.
Rand Paul surely knows this. He’s heard his father deny and deride the "isolationist" label, no doubt thousands of times, and so his choice of words may seem distinctly odd. It is, instead, a calculated effort to banish the looming image of the elder Paul, the nation’s leading non-interventionist, from the room, and he does so right off the bat. Indeed, the entire speech – and, come to think of it, his entire political career since being elected to the Senate – could be summed up in five words: I am not my father!
This rhetorical patricide accomplished, he pressed onward – and downward.