Rand Paul has been in the news a lot lately, in trouble for being, in the past, a little too candid. This article does, I think, a pretty good job of covering the controversy. In the past, Paul has suggested that he would cut American foreign aid to most countries, Israel included. When asked, point blank, if he would cut aid to Israel, he said yes, but then hastened to qualify it. Now he says that he wouldn’t cut aid to Israel, and that he never said that he would cut it. It’s become a thing. Jon Stewart did a bit about it. It’s been prominent on MSNBC. Politifact gave Paul’s denial’s a pants on fire award. And so the narrative is: Rand Paul, flip-flopper. Or, you know, a liar. And I like Jon Stewart and I like Rachel Maddow. But I think the focus is off here.
The Presidential election is two years away. Already, Rand Paul is spending immense amounts of time in Iowa, because that’s what you do when you’re running for President. And so he’s trying to define himself, and Democrats are also trying to define him, less flatteringly. This is all normal stuff, though I hate to waste brain space thinking about a Presidential race two long years away.
But this Israel stuff is immensely depressing, is it not? There are three intersecting/overlapping things going on right now. First, Rand Paul is a libertarian, with views on foreign policy that are quite different from the views of the Republican establishment and, actually, not terribly reflective of the Tea Party Right. Second, his ideas about Israel and foreign policy and foreign aid deserve a respectful hearing, not least because they are so different from what most politicians believe or are willing to say. These are really important issues, about which we should have a vigorous and thoughtful debate. Third, though, the media isn’t likely to allow that debate to happen. Because the mainstream media aren’t interested in policy. They’re interested in the horse race, and in crafting shallow melodramatic narratives about the candidates. They’re more interested in the question “did Paul flip-flop on Israel?” than they are in the question “what should American foreign policy be in regards to Israel?” They want to ask “what did Rand Paul say and when did he say it?” Not “why are we giving all this money to Israel? Should we give more, or less, or should we cut off all foreign aid altogether?”
They’re interested, right now, in timing. Who will announce, and when, and how? They’d rather function as drama critics than as policy analysts. They love it when a candidate ‘goes negative,’ and they love the subsequent campaign strategizing. They’d rather focus on ‘who’s going to win,’ than on ‘what would these people do, if elected President.’
In the 2012 race, as the Republicans slogged through those endless televised debates, Ron Paul was the one guy who was consistently off the res. He got booed a lot, and he clearly didn’t care. He was the one guy who didn’t think America should be projecting military power abroad. He opposed the war in Iraq, and the war in Afghanistan. He wanted to cut military spending. Those were interesting positions, and I admired his political courage in taking those positions. Now his son is running for President. And Rand Paul seems to actually want to be President, unlike his father, who always struck me as someone who would rather be true to his own libertarian belief system. Do you want to be President, or do you want to be right? Rand wants to be President, I think.
So, Rand Paul in 2010 and 11 tended to tell people what he really believed about foreign policy, and to some extent, he now seems to be backing away from positions that are unlikely to be popular. And I get that, but I think it’s also a shame. In essence, I think, Paul doesn’t think the media will allow for a substantive, nuanced debate on important issues. I think he thinks, with good reason, that they’re more interested in playing ‘gotcha.’
Conservatives believe, as an article of faith, that the mainstream news media has a strong liberal bias, and that that bias warps their coverage of the news. I think that’s total nonsense. I think the reality is that the important mainstream news media figures aren’t biased, they’re incompetent. They’re terrible. They’re hopelessly bad at their jobs. They do a rotten job of covering what really matters: policy. Instead, they focus on trivia.
This is not to say that I agree with Rand Paul, or that I intend to vote for him. I don’t tend to agree with libertarians on most issues, and I probably won’t vote for him, if he’s the nominee. But I think ideas matter. I think he’s being treated badly, in part because he’s communicated his ideas artlessly, and in part because he’s not playing the political game very astutely. But I also think he should be given a forum to communicate, clearly and thoughtfully and with as much nuance as is required, what he thinks about American foreign policy. I think he should be allowed the space to carefully describe what he thinks about Israel, and our aid to Israel, and the weapons we’ve given to Israel, and the military expertise we’ve shared with Israel. I think that’s an important and interesting set of issues, and we should be having a national conversation about it. Especially now, given what’s happening.
I don’t care if Rand Paul has flip-flopped. I don’t care what he said in 2011, and how he’s ‘clarified his position’ since. I want to hear him out on this important subject. I want to know what he thinks, why he thinks it, what specifically he proposes. And I want to know what Hillary Clinton thinks on those same issues, and why she thinks it. I want to know all that about all the candidates, from both parties, running for President in this next election.
I don’t think it’s going to happen. And I think that’s a shame, and that it serves our nation poorly. Can’t we be smarter about this stuff? Because the guns are going off, and people are dying, and I don’t know that we’ve ever really debated our role in any of it.