As the 2016 presidential race has swung into motion in the last couple of months, we've heard a lot about Jeb Bush, and Scott Walker, and even Ted Cruz. But there hasn't been a lot of news about Rand Paul, whom many people considered the most interesting candidate in the race. Paul has proven adept at gaining positive news coverage, and the fact that he's a quasi-libertarian makes him a little less predictable than other candidates. In fact, that's the core of his appeal. He can't argue that he has a lengthy list of accomplishments; his 2010 Senate campaign was the first time he ran for any office, and he hasn't authored any important legislation. Being different is what makes Rand Paul compelling.
But there's only so different you can be. The guy who was supposedly so skeptical of the overuse of American military power is now proposing a huge increase in military spending:
The move completes a stunning reversal for Paul, who in May 2011, after just five months in office, released his own budget that would have eliminated four agencies—Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Education—while slashing the Pentagon, a sacred cow for many Republicans. Under Paul’s original proposal, defense spending would have dropped from $553 billion in the 2011 fiscal year to $542 billion in 2016. War funding would have plummeted from $159 billion to zero. He called it the “draw-down and restructuring of the Department of Defense.”
But under Paul’s new plan, the Pentagon will see its budget authority swell by $76.5 billion to $696,776,000,000 in fiscal year 2016.
The boost would be offset by a two-year combined $212 billion cut to funding for aid to foreign governments, climate change research and crippling reductions in to the budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Commerce and Education.
We should have seen this coming. Last August, I wrote that while Paul may have a few positions that don't fit neatly into traditional Republican conservatism, the more central an issue is, the more likely he is to take the expected GOP line:
Even if being a little less ideologically predictable is part of Paul's appeal, it turns out that there are some positions that are negotiable for a Republican presidential candidate trying to win over primary voters, and some that aren't. A true libertarian can start off telling those voters that he favors low taxes and small government, and they'll cheer. He can tell them he's concerned about the militarization of the police, as Paul recently wrote eloquently about, and they might say, "I still think we need law and order, but I get what you're saying." He can tell them that government surveillance of Americans is getting out of control, and they might decide he has a point, even if they're still concerned about fighting terrorism. But if the libertarian candidate goes on to say that because he believes in maximal personal freedom, he also supports abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and the legalization of drugs, they'll raise their eyebrows and say, "Hold on there, buddy."
That's not what Rand Paul will be saying; on those last three issues, he ranges from firmly Republican (he opposes abortion rights) to essentially Republican (he opposes same-sex marriage but says it should be left up to the states) to somewhat less Republican (he opposes legalization but has suggested some sensible reform of marijuana laws). In other words, he's about as libertarian as an ambitious Republican can be: pushing the GOP a bit on issues where the party is pulled by competing impulses (like law and order vs. skepticism of state power), but safely in the fold on every issue where there's consensus in the party.
Why is Paul making this proposal now? It's partly because the presidential race is getting going, but mostly because this intra-Republican argument over the budget has brought the issue of military spending back near the top of the agenda. If he wants to be competitive in the presidential race, Paul has to get on the right side.
Contemporary conservatism has four main pillars: low taxes, small government, "traditional" social values, and a large military. No one who wants to be the GOP presidential nominee can stray from any of them in any serious way. And this is Rand Paul's dilemma: His distinctiveness as a candidate comes from the fact that there are areas in which he questions Republican orthodoxy, but if he questions parts of that orthodoxy that Republicans fervently believe in, they'll reject him. But when he does things like propose a large increase in military spending, he ends up looking just like every other Republican.