Where Rubio talks sweepingly about America’s mission in the world, Paul expresses skepticism about nation-building and democracy promotion. Where Rubio invokes World War II and the cold war, Paul invokes the founding fathers’ fears about executive power and overseas entanglements. Where Rubio borrows Ronald Reagan’s expansive rhetoric, Paul praises Reagan’s caution in committing American troops to foreign wars.
They do share some common ground. Both emphasize peace through strength. Both are skeptical of international institutions. And Paul has been at pains to express support for operations like the one that killed Osama bin Laden.
But the right’s two rising stars would ultimately take the Republican Party in very different directions. This has been apparent in the debate over the Libyan quasi war. Both senators have criticized President Obama’s handling of the intervention. But Rubio has argued that we should be striking harder against Qaddafi, while Paul has dismissed the war as both unwise and unconstitutional.
Among conservatism’s foreign policy elite, Rubio’s worldview commands more support. But in the grass roots, it’s a different story. A recent Pew poll found that the share of conservative Republicans agreeing that the U.S. should “pay less attention to problems overseas” has risen from 36 percent in 2004 to 55 percent today. In the debate over Libya, Tea Party icons like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin have sounded more like Paul than Rubio, and a large group of House Republican backbenchers recently voted for a resolution that would have brought the intervention screeching to a halt.
This doesn’t mean that Paul’s vision is destined to win out. The country is weary of war, but the story Rubio tells, with eloquence and passion, is still tremendously appealing — the story of a great republic armed and righteous, with no limits on what it can accomplish in the world.
This is a story that many conservatives — and many Americans — want to believe. Once, I believed it myself.
But that was many years and many wars ago, and now I think Rand Paul is right.