WASHINGTON — Rand Paul had just finished his opening remarks at a private gathering of Republican power brokers at the Four Seasons in Georgetown last fall when Phil Gramm, the former senator from Texas, shot up his hand with the first question.
“Let’s say you knew for certain that by May 1 of next year that Iran would have generated enough highly refined uranium to build a bomb,” Gramm said. “Would you support attacking?” Paul, the Republican junior senator from Kentucky, had a dodge at the ready. “Can I give you Romney’s answer?” he asked, drawing a few laughs from the crowd as he said that he did not answer hypotheticals.
Gramm demanded more of a response.
“What would you do?” the former senator insisted, but Paul was again vague.
An awkward silence fell over the room, and the moderator at the gathering quickly moved on to the next question.
The exchange, a recording of which was provided by someone in the room, showed how difficult it will be for Paul to straddle the treacherous fault line splitting the hawks of the Republican Party from others who favor a less aggressive foreign policy as he tests the waters for a presidential run in 2016.
As Paul opens new doors to younger voters and others who have turned away from Republicans, few issues have proved more persuasive for the libertarian-minded senator than his wariness of centralized authority and his skepticism of military intervention. Yet those same positions have alarmed powerful elements of the Republican base who have undertaken a campaign to portray Paul as dangerously misguided.
They include right-leaning supporters of Israel, neoconservative think tanks, veterans of the George W. Bush administration and widely read writers of The Weekly Standard, National Review and the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. Underscoring the potential threat to Paul, these are not just influential voices but people who hold considerable clout in the moneyed circles that control the flow of cash into campaigns and super PACs.
And so far, despite an aggressive charm offensive by the senator that has included dinners with former ambassadors and military brass, a trip to Israel and an in-person pitch to the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a group heavily financed by the casino billionaire Sheldon G. Adelson, the criticism still rains down.
In the Journal’s opinion pages he has been accused of “bark-at-the-moon lunacy.” (Paul’s meeting last fall with The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board quickly went sour. People who attended described the meeting as awkwardly contentious - until Rupert Murdoch, the newspaper’s owner, walked into the room and brought down the temperature.) The headline on a column last month by Rich Lowry of the National Review asked: “Rand Paul’s Foreign Policy: For the Situation Room or the Dorm Room?” The reason the attacks are so personal and so hostile, Paul said, is that Republicans who favor more U.S. involvement in the world fear that his view, not theirs, is gaining support. “The country is moving in my direction,” he said in an interview.
Paul bristles at an adjective often used to describe his foreign policy: isolationist. “Not only am I for being involved, I’m actually for more involvement than the neocons,” he said, referring to the branch of conservatism that supports an interventionist foreign policy.
“The neocons are really neoisolationists,” he added, “in the sense that they are so hardened - that everybody should behave like us, and everybody in the world should be in our image - that they discount the concept of looking at things realistically and negotiating with people who don’t have our point of view.”
Paul often complains that his worldview is caricatured by people who are eager to cast him as a clone of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who is deeply suspicious of U.S. involvement overseas. “They start out with a mischaracterization of his point of view, bastardize it, make it worse,” the senator said.
Paul said he believes that war should be fought only when Congress authorizes it and that President Barack Obama has overstepped his constitutional authority in using drones as a substitute for traditional military forces. Though Paul has been accused of having a weak policy of containment for dealing with Iran, he has insisted that his reluctance to publicly discuss the idea of a military strike there stems from his unwillingness to broadcast options to the nation’s enemies.
This less swaggering approach has won him applause as he has toured the country, visiting places like Berkeley, California, recently, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. It dovetails with his efforts to rein in what he sees as examples of a runaway, unchecked executive branch that flouts the Constitution by spying on its citizens and fighting covert wars with drones.
Paul may not have a long record on foreign policy - as he often points out, he was a full-time ophthalmologist until just 3 1 / 2years ago - but his votes in the Senate on bills dealing with Israel and Iran, along with past statements dug up and disseminated by his opponents, have raised concern among those with hawkish tendencies.
He believes that all foreign aid should be eventually cut off. His description of aid to Israel as “welfare” in a 2011 interview alarmed some Jewish conservatives.
Last month, a video surfaced of him suggesting that Dick Cheney, the former vice president, was motivated by profit when he advocated invading Iraq because of his ties Halliburton, the government contractor. To many Bush-era Republicans, the remark was especially offensive.
“It’s crazy. It’s vicious. It’s personal,” Paul Wolfowitz, a deputy secretary of defense during the Iraq War, said of Paul’s suggestion. “It’s entirely unhelpful.”
Some of the mistrust of Paul has deeper roots, stemming from newsletters published in his father’s name that promoted hostility toward Israel, which critics saw as anti-Semitism. The elder Paul has said he did not write the newsletters.
“In some ways it feels terribly unfair to tar a son with his father’s brush,” said Danielle Pletka, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, a neoconservative think tank. On the other hand, she added, “There’s no love lost between Jewish conservatives and Rand Paul. There just isn’t.”
Not all interventionist Republicans are so unsympathetic, and some perceptions of Paul among his skeptics have begun to soften since he and his staff began courting the hawkish wing of the party about a year ago.
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America and a close associate of Adelson’s, said that when he pressed Paul to explain his position on aid to Israel in a recent meeting in the senator’s Washington office, Klein left reassured. “He said if there was a vote and for any reason it seemed like it was actually going to be close, he would vote for it,” Klein said.
The issue of aid to Israel also came up last year in a meeting with the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Members pressed the senator, and he conceded that while he would eventually like to terminate all foreign aid, he knew that would not be realistic now. “You could see he was a work in progress,” said Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary to George W. Bush and a member of the Jewish coalition’s board. “He’s thinking about these issues; he’s trying to learn.”
Part of Paul’s strategy is to appear before audiences that are not necessarily friendly to him. Last year he spoke to the Heritage Foundation and this year to the Center for the National Interest, a think tank established by Richard Nixon, where Paul said he believed that U.S. foreign policy was “too belligerent.” Later, at a private dinner with military brass and former diplomats, he left the impression that he knew he must evolve.
“What I did come away with was he is in fact moving away from his father,” said Charles G. Boyd, a retired four-star general in the Air Force. “He’s searching for his own footing. He senses he needs to be different.”
Some observers say this is the evolution of a savvy politician with presidential ambitions. Paul says it is more like a slow reveal. “I’ve been expressing gradually where my foreign policy is,” he said. “Foreign policy isn’t set in stone. It isn’t either-or. And it isn’t always right or wrong.”