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Matt Welch: Libertarian Republicans like Rand Paul are closer to Hagel on foreign policy than they are to neo-cons like McCain and Graham

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in what is today a rather happy Baltimore.

Now joining us from Washington, D.C., is Matt Welch. Matt is editor in chief of Reason magazine. He’s coauthor with Nick Gillespie of the book The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America, and also the 2007 biography McCain: The Myth of a Maverick.

Thanks for joining us again, Matt.

MATT WELCH, EDITOR IN CHIEF, REASON MAGAZINE: Thanks so much for having me. And congratulations.

JAY: So the hearings over Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense have revealed many of the fracture lines within the Republican Party. Can you give us sort of a map of how you see the different centers of that power?

WELCH: Yeah. As regards foreign policy in particular, you have a basic fight or divide in the Republican Party. Maybe there’s three camps. There’s broadly two.

The one that is the most dominant and was attracting the most headlines during the Hagel hearings, as embodied by John McCain and Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz, actually, is the kind of post-9/11 neoconservatism or just very hawkish interventionism. That is the same position, for the most part, that Mitt Romney took throughout the election. It’s always talking about America can’t be apologizing for anything, and anytime there’s something bad happening in the world, it’s a sign of American weakness if we’re not actively doing something about it, even if we don’t know what that something should be, aside from dropping a bomb or two. And I know that sounds cynical, but I’m cynical about these people. So this has been the dominant strain.

There’s a rising minority faction within the Republican Party. A lot of it overlaps with the Tea Party, which means Ted Cruz becomes an interesting figure. But it’s more embodied by Rand Paul, son of Ron, who—Ron’s a principled noninterventionist; Rand is a pragmatic, let’s say, foreign policy realist leaning towards noninterventionism. This group is growing.

There are people who are willing [incompr.] Republicans for the first time in a generation, beginning with Rand Paul, but now embodied by people like Justin Amash in the House, who were talking about military spending as a problem. They’re turning around to their Republican colleagues and saying, you need to cut military if you are at all serious about cutting the size of government; and U.S. foreign policy can’t be in charge of the world everywhere we go, it’s just ridiculous; you need to subsume the president under the will of the Congress at least somewhat; and these types of things.

So that body is growing. Chuck Hagel isn’t necessarily part of them, but he’s a foreign-policy realist. So that is more copacetic with the more noninterventionist new wing of the Republican Party.

Then there are people—Jim DeMint, who used to be in the Senate and now is heading up Heritage Foundation, which itself is a pretty interesting maneuver, people who are hawkish their whole lives, but they’re—kind of have grown disaffected, certainly with the Afghanistan War, and also the Iraq War. So those people, they’re kind of wobbling.

So when we’re talking about a battle for the soul of the modern GOP, it’s going to be a lot about how those people wobble. Are they going to wobble in the direction of saying, hey, look, let’s get to more of a candidate George W. Bush position, which was talking about a humble U.S. foreign policy and no more nation building and these types of things? Or are we going to be stuck in this more neoconservative McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham type of thing?

So the Hagel nomination was a great way for the president, Barack Obama, to kind of, you know, present that divide and stoke it a little bit, because it’s Republican-on-Republican violence, for the most part. And going forward, it’s going to be very interesting to see which of these coalitions gather more steam. I think still the dominant lingering post-9/11 strain is still the largest by far. But it’s definitely losing in overtime.

JAY: And how does it break down within the Tea Party members (I guess most of them are in the House, some in the Senate) other than Rand Paul? ‘Cause in the Tea Party you have a reflection of some of the same division, as you were talking about, the bit of a crossover. But many of the Tea Party members are really on the neocon foreign-policy page, and a few are on the more libertarian page.

WELCH: It’s very, very interesting. Rand Paul is specifically trying to—he always called himself a Tea Party Republican. That was the name of his first book. It wasn’t about libertarianism—back then, he was sort of running away from that word, although he’s embraced it since.

He wants to make the claim to the Tea Party and tell them, hey, look, you’re organizing animus against government has to include the military [incompr.] He wants to make that a reality. And he’s giving a big talk this week at the Heritage Foundation, precisely sketching out how this vision of a foreign policy going forward will work. So it’ll be very interesting to watch.

But the Tea Party was never about the military. They all agreed to not talk about potentially divisive issues. For instance, immigration has not been part of a Tea Party thing so far. It was just about the size of government and the scope of government in terms of spending and activity, not in terms of taxes. So it’s an unanswered question.

So you have people like Ted Cruz, who’s a complete flag-waver hawk out there who is really taking a lot of the strongest punches on Hagel. Well, he’s considered a Tea Party favorite. Libertarians like talking about him when it comes to fiscal policy.

But then you have people like a Justin Amash, Thomas Massie, who’s a new guy in Kentucky. These guys are principled noninterventionists who are much more—you know, they’re further out than Rand Paul in terms of opposing these things, and they’re very, very good on civil liberties, as Rand Paul has been, too, in terms of the war on terror.

So it’s a split right now, and that is part of the ongoing divide.

I think Mike Lee is much more of a skeptic on the side—Senator Mike Lee from Utah—on the side of Rand Paul. Marco Rubio, on the other hand, is more hawkish, like Ted Cruz. So they’re divided there for sure.

JAY: Now, when I interviewed Rand Paul in the primaries in—I was in New Hampshire in 2008—he told me that he thought the Libertarian Republicans had more in common with the antiwar Democrats like a Kucinich and others than they did with the neocons like Bush. But when it came down to it, when he ran himself for the Senate, he accepted money from Karl Rove’s organization. When it came to the presidential elections just passed, he supported Romney, who, as you just mentioned, is clearly more on the page of these neocons that he said he was so against. So when push comes to shove, does his own partisan career interests trump whatever he believes?

WELCH: I don’t believe so, and here’s why. On his first day in the Senate, he said something that I hadn’t heard a Republican say in 20 years—and this was a campaign promise. Right after telling Democrats, you cannot keep entitlements as is, you’re going to need to cut them, he turned to Republicans and said, you cannot keep military spending and foreign-policy adventurism the way it is.

He has been very principled. He tried to introduce the Iraq Deauthorization Act. This is very important and, I think, very little understood by people. On September 14, 2001, there was the Authorization of Force Act, which is this blanket sort of blank check for the president to conduct a war type of foreign policy. That’s what enables drone strikes to go everywhere; it’s under this authorization act. Rand Paul was the one—not necessarily a Democrat out there, although there are some good ones like Ron Wyden—who said, no, we need to deauthorize that, we need to get rid of that blank check out there [incompr.]

What he’s trying to do is get the messages from his father which are totally unpalatable to a broad swath of Republican thinking and make it palatable. He’s going to argue most of the same principles on Sean Hannity’s show and get called back. He’s running for president in 2016 for sure—it’s already happening—and he’s getting a respectful hearing in places that his father couldn’t go. And he’s doing that by tempering his language more than actually tempering votes.

I mean, [incompr.] supporting Mitt Romney. He did that after his father was going to lose. Of course he would have supported his father if he was doing that. And he did that so he could speak at the Republican convention, where he gave—for the first time, again, in a generation at a Republican convention—at least a couple of good paragraphs saying, you’ve got to cut military spending, and you’ve got to scale back adventurism abroad, and you have to respect civil liberties while you’re doing this.

So you can look at it as, like, Rand Paul’s big fat sellout, or that he is finding a way to talk to people and organizations in order to affect the whole of the party.

I mean, think about this. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky senator, he is the one who supported Rand Paul’s opponent in the primary and got his hat handed to him. Now Mitch McConnell has hired Ron Paul’s longtime political capo in Washington, Jesse Benton, to help run his campaign in Kentucky. So the Paulite influence is much stronger in some ways in the Republican Party right now than it was when Ron Paul was still in Congress, which is a very interesting thing.

Rand Paul is the guy to watch, and also the guy to keep checks on. He made, I think, a silly comment the other day about how an attack on Israel is an attack on America, and he got rebuked, and he’s been backtracking since then.

JAY: But that’s sort of paying his dues and positioning himself. But it’s the kind of positioning. Then you start to wonder: well, you can position, position, position till you don’t have a position anymore, if you know what I mean.

WELCH: Yes. And so it’ll be interesting, again, to see what he says this week at his Heritage speech and how he puts this. He’s wrapping a lot of this into a separation of powers issue, which is a bit clever, saying that basically the president has unchecked authority and the need to restore the constitutional checks and balances on what he does. And he’s trying to present it as more of a third way. It’s like, you know, we—you know, on one side, you have people who think we should of course have 900 military bases abroad and muck into everything. And on the other side are people who think that we shouldn’t be anywhere and we should completely, you know, draw up our bridges [crosstalk]

JAY: Where do you expect him to be on the Hagel vote, then? Because if, as you said, Hagel at least is closer to his view of how U.S.—the United States should operate in the world—yet there’s going to be enormous pressure on Rand Paul by the neocons to vote against Hagel.

WELCH: I would be really surprised if he voted against Hagel. I mean, first of all, I would be surprised if Hagel doesn’t win, get the nomination, even though his performance in the hearing was desultory by anybody’s, I think, analysis of it. I think he’s going to pass through. So it would really surprise me if Rand Paul was part of a rearguard action to try to take him out, although who knows, ultimately. He is trying to play ball with Republicans while still be able to get his message through. So far there haven’t been many cases that I’ve seen where his actual votes have been in a direction that one would find offensive if one was more of a principled noninterventionist. He has done—some votes have been criticized there, but it would surprise me if he would vote against Hagel on those grounds, on grounds that he’s insufficiently hostile towards Iraq or Iran and Hezbollah and these types of things. That would genuinely surprise me.

JAY: So, just quickly, just Hagel’s performance, I mean, it occurred to me that one of the reason Hagel didn’t have a more vociferous fight with McCain is that the Obama administration itself has picked up some of this rhetoric about the success of Iraq just to kind of, I guess, buy into the patriotic fervor of it all and the fact that Obama then had to manage that war. I mean, Obama and most of the people around him were critical of the surge at the time, and I think most analysts who have looked at the surge say the surge itself wasn’t really the thing that made the difference; it was the Sunni tribes turning on the al-Qaeda forces for their—mostly for their own reasons. But if Hagel took up that and really unraveled that and said what he really thought, it wouldn’t be just McCain he’d be arguing with; he’d actually be puncturing some of Obama’s narrative.

WELCH: Yeah. I think that’s a clever way of looking at it. And you can feel him just sort of defrock up there, like, just defang, trying to talk his way out. And I think also that’s been maybe part of the Obama project of if there’s going to be a fight on this, let’s have it, you know, between Republicans and not between Democrats and Republicans.

But I think it’s also to point out something else, which is uncomfortable, I think, for a lot of noninterventionists to grapple with, which is that the school of foreign policy broadly thought of as realism is inherently unsatisfying. It does not resonate inherently with the American people when it’s not talking about cutting back our overall size in the military, getting troops out of Germany, getting troops out of Korea. All that stuff is popular, right, and broadly popular. And I think that there is an available politics for people like a Rand Paul who kind of go after that and stress that stuff.

But realism as applied to a massacre happening on the ground right now is not very popular, it’s not very emotionally satisfying, because it’s basically saying we can’t do everything, and people are going to die while we do not a lot. And that’s a tough thing to really emotionally grapple with, and it requires a certain type of sensitivity and communication skills which I think we can say conclusively that Chuck Hagel lacks. So realism’s a hard sell.

And that’s one of the reasons, you know, we like to think that it’s always—it’s these nefarious lobbies that are influencing everything. And lobbies have their role. But there are things that are broadly popular in the American body politic. And to talk in a way that is contrary to parts of those things, it requires a certain skillset, and I don’t think Hagel had it.

JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Matt.

WELCH: Thank you. Appreciate it.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason magazine. Welch's work has appeared in The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, Los Angeles Daily News, Orange County Register, LA Weekly,,, Wired, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Daily Star of Beirut, and dozens of other publications.