Rand Paul: The GOP's punching bag

Republican rivals gang up on Rand Paul
Republican rivals gang up on Rand Paul

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Story highlights

  • Rand Paul is angering many fellow Republicans with his NSA protests
  • George Pataki: Paul's actions are "simply putting Americans at risk"

Washington (CNN)Rand Paul has a "kick me" sign on his back -- and he put it there himself.

The Kentucky senator and Republican presidential candidate thrilled his libertarian-leaning base after he forced the Sunday night expiration of provisions of the Patriot Act and ended the government's collection of phone metadata on millions of Americans. But the moves are enraging top Republicans on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail who slammed Paul for putting his political ambitions above national security.
"I think he obviously has a higher priority for his fundraising and political ambitions than for the security of the nation," veteran Sen. John McCain, a top party hawk, told reporters on Sunday as Paul prepared to sink the Patriot Act programs.
    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky's senior senator who's already endorsed Paul for President, did little to hide his ire.
    "We shouldn't be disarming unilaterally as our enemies grow more sophisticated and aggressive," McConnell said Sunday on the Senate floor. "And we certainly should not be doing so based on a campaign of demagoguery and disinformation launched in the wake of the unlawful actions of Edward Snowden."
    Former New York Gov. George Pataki, Paul's latest presidential primary rival, said Paul's that actions are "simply putting Americans at risk for political reasons."
    For now, the impact of Paul's actions on national security will be minimal. The government can continue collecting data and using roving wiretaps for investigations opened before Monday. Meanwhile, Congress is expected to reach a deal later this week that would restore many of those powers going forward, though with some limits. And lawmakers are also likely to reauthorize broader provisions of the Patriot Act.
    But one thing is clear: Paul has become the preferred punching bag of establishment Republicans, and his fellow GOP hopefuls. And he's well aware of it.
    He fired back at his critics on the Senate floor Sunday with a denunciation of his political foes: "Some of them, I think, secretly want there to be an attack so they can blame it on me."
    "The people who argue that the world will end and we will be overrun by jihadists tonight are trying to use fear. They want to take just a little bit of your liberty but they get it by making you afraid. They want you to fear and give up your liberty," Paul said defiantly on the Senate floor.
    The moves serve as a way for Paul to distinguish himself in an increasingly crowded field of potential Republican presidential candidates. Paul has dominated the news cycle in recent days by railing against the NSA in the Senate and on the campaign trail and raising money along the way.
    Many of Paul's primary rivals are eager to attack him to win media attention and bolster their national security credentials, but the bashing will be a persistent challenge for Paul as he navigates the tricky challenge of galvanizing his base, dominated by isolationists, while competing in a Republican primary that remains heavily influenced by traditional foreign policy hawks.
    That was clear last week when Paul delivered a stinging criticism of that very group, charging that "ISIS exists and grew stronger because of the hawks in our party" and drawing a swift rebuke from the GOP presidential field.
    "I would expect to hear that from maybe Bernie Sanders," former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said, referring to the liberal Democratic presidential candidate. "I don't expect to hear that from somebody running for the Republican nomination."
    Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal called Paul "unsuited" to be commander-in-chief while former Texas Gov. Rick Perry accused Paul of a "basic misunderstanding of the situation in Iraq and Syria."
    Gov. Chris Christie, asked how he would work with Congress, praised the idea of compromise and blasted lawmakers for treating it like a "dirty word."
    "You see that going on right now in Washington," he said, referencing Paul's efforts in Congress. "People standing up, blocking things, giving endless speeches, being self-important."
    A real leader, he argued, develops relationships with opponents and is willing to compromise.
    But, he said, "there are some purists in our party who will say absolutely not—just say no to all of it. Stand your ground until they give in."
    Paul even took some heat in New Hampshire, where his more out-of-step views stand their best chance, with the publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader writing Sunday that "Rand Paul is wrong on ISIS."
    Polling suggests Paul is struggling to leap into the top tier of Republican presidential candidates. A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday found a five-way tie for first place -- and Paul wasn't among the five. Still, the poll indicated that Paul could be competitive in a general election against Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
    The challenge for Paul is that, with the exception of his father Ron Paul, the post-9/11 era hasn't produced a Republican presidential contender eager to roll back the government's tools -- regardless of how effective -- to combat terrorism.
    Even in the sunset of the George W. Bush presidency, as Americans were settling on the opinion that the Iraq War was a mistake, Republicans nominated John McCain -- one of the party's top hawks.
    And Paul is running against the GOP tide on the role of the U.S. in the world. Hitting Obama on presiding over a retreat of the U.S. around the world and losing the respect of traditional allies because of a reluctance to intervene are top talking points for most Republicans heading into 2016.
    That means Paul will need to continue defending himself on national security, insisting that he wants a strong national defense, is an eager and prepared leader in the fight against terrorism and that, despite appearances and his own track record, he is not an isolationist. That's a label Paul has struggled to shake off, partially because of his last name, but also because of his own fervent arguments against U.S. engagement abroad.
    He's made every effort to do so, walking back his stance on ending foreign aid to Israel and going from cautioning against military intervention against ISIS to penning an op-ed entitled "I Am Not an Isolationist," saying he "would have acted more decisively and strongly against ISIS" than Obama.
    But Paul is still trying to tap into a war-weary public -- and sticking to that strategy might be his only chance.
    "If you're Rand Paul, don't want to escape it," Republican strategist Rick Wilson said of attacks from GOP 2016ers. "If you're Rand Paul, you want to frame this as devil D.C. RINO war hawks versus son of Ron, anti-interventionist water's edge -- everything opposite of the 2000-era muscular foreign policy.
    He added: "That's his branding."
    Paul didn't back down on the campaign trail Thursday.
    "We have to decide how we defend ourselves and when it is time to intervene in a country and when maybe intervening makes things worse," he said.
    Paul is also betting that his Republican opponents are wrong about the public's perception of the NSA's domestic spying powers. A bipartisan poll commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union last week supports Paul's gambit, revealing that two out of every three Americans believe Congress shouldn't reauthorize the Patriot Act without reforms. And those numbers stood solidly with voters who consider themselves "very conservative," according to the poll.
    But while Paul pushes facts from review groups that show that the NSA's phone data collection program on millions of Americans hasn't been essential to thwarting a single terror plot, his detractors in the field are betting they have a more powerful tool: fear.
    As ISIS expands and looks to inspire potential jihadists around the world, Paul's strategy poses risks to his political prospects.
    "That is a very big gamble to take especially in a world where ... terrorism is becoming a more meaningful and consistent threat," Wilson said.