Column: Isolating an isolationist
By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — To be objectivist about it, you would have to conclude that the Republican Party is shrugging at Rand Paul right now.
Chris Christie, the popular GOP governor of New Jersey, last week called Paul’s libertarian views “dangerous.” And on the Senate floor Wednesday, Republican colleagues dealt the junior senator from Kentucky what can be described only as a resounding rebuke.
Even the 86-13 vote against Paul’s proposal to strip Egypt of its foreign aid doesn’t capture the lopsided nature of the defeat. In the final seconds of the roll call and long after the outcome was obvious, a bloc of six GOP lawmakers led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell quietly cast their votes with Paul — not in agreement with him but in fear of the tea party voters who adore him.
But whether Paul’s position had seven Republican votes or 13, the isolationist gadfly found himself in the decided minority of the 45-member Senate GOP caucus. And in the hourlong debate that preceded the vote, Paul was alone on the floor defending his position against an emotional onslaught from his party’s most respected voices on foreign policy.
“I think most people on this side of the aisle understand that this is terrible public policy,” Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, told the Senate. “This is a vote that gives us an opportunity to step away from those short-term, hot, poll-tested amendments that have nothing to do with furthering the greatness of this nation.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said a vote for Paul’s plan “is probably easier to explain” but “your country would be well served if you decided today to pause and wait.”
A vigorous Sen. John McCain of Arizona urged “my friend from Kentucky, with respect, to realize that this amendment would send the wrong message at the wrong time.”
Paul sat a few feet away, pressing his pen to his upper lip.
This was the Senate at its best, producing a lively and emotional debate without notes or prepared speeches. More than a dozen senators sat or stood at their desks in the usually empty chamber, engaging Paul, who tried to rebut their points. So many wished to join the fray that Majority Leader Harry Reid extended the debate.
The result reinforced the proud tradition of internationalism in the body, and in the GOP. For all the talk of a Republican civil war over foreign policy, Wednesday’s vote showed that the internationalists still dominate. McCain portrayed Paul as the heir to the America Firsters. But there has been no growth in the isolationist sentiment since March, when an amendment to restrict aid to Egypt failed, 74-25, or since September 2012, when a Paul bill to cut off aid to Egypt, Pakistan and Libya went down, 81-10.
Paul, attempting to attach his proposal to a domestic spending measure, made his familiar argument for “nation-building here at home” instead of overseas.
His colleagues had different ideas. Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said he might have agreed with Paul 15 years ago, “before we realized the threats that we have in the Middle East.” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida tried a practical appeal, saying the aid cutoff would mean “you lose leverage.” And Graham read aloud a letter from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee opposing Paul’s amendment.
“One of the reasons we are the greatest nation,” Corker argued, “is because of the values we extend around the world and the fact that we have been a voice of calm.”
Paul responded to all this with rambling speeches and wild gestures, refusing to yield when colleagues asked him to and accusing his opponents of “empty thoughts and empty promises.” He called the AIPAC letter “a canard” and he wandered into an account of a Paris shopping spree by the wife of Mobutu Sese Seko, the late Congolese dictator.
McCain needled Paul. “The question here is whether the senator from Kentucky knows what’s better for Israel, or Israel.”
Paul shook his head, reclaimed the floor and challenged the “so-called leadership” of AIPAC.
When the clerk called the roll, McCain whipped his colleagues aggressively: arguing with Dean Heller of Nevada after the new senator took Paul’s side, applauding when John Hoeven of North Dakota voted against Paul and working over Tim Scott of South Carolina until the senator cried uncle. “I’m with you,” Scott said.
For the Republican internationalists, this wasn’t about winning but dominating.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.