The Passion of Rand Paul

Why the senator was against Chuck Hagel before he was for him.

U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) leaves after a caucus meeting at the Capitol February 14, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., at the Capitol in February

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Shortly before noon, before the vote on whether to move forward on Chuck Hagel’s nomination for secretary of defense, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul walked onto the floor of the Senate. He stood near the well, where he would have to cast his vote. After Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander cast the first vote—an aye—he and Paul chatted off to the side. When his own name came up in the roll call—“Mr. Paul?”—Paul said nothing.

Nearly half of Paul’s fellow senators voted in the first alphabetical run-through of names. It was clear, almost immediately, that Hagel would have enough votes to break a filibuster. Paul walked over to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the unofficial whip of the unofficial Dump Hagel campaign, spoke briefly, then returned to the well. He cast his vote.

“Mr. Paul, no.”

Hagel was vaulting over this final hurdle, but Paul wasn’t going to help. Two weeks earlier, Paul had cast a decisive vote against cloture, making Hagel the first-ever national security nominee to face a filibuster. “There’s all kinds of rumors all over the Internet about foreign groups that may have provided financing,” explained Paul, “and I think he needs to reveal that.” Had Paul voted the other way, Hagel wouldn’t have spent those extra days being beat up by hawkish Republicans, Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, and groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel.

Forty other Republicans joined Paul on that first filibuster, and 26 more joined him in the first vote opposing cloture today. But conservative foreign policy “realists,” the sort of people who backed Rep. Ron Paul’s campaigns for president, were uniquely disappointed in the heir. “Sen. Paul is aiding and abetting a disgusting McCarthyite campaign against an honorable man,” wrote AntiWar.com’s Justin Raimondo. “Paul endorsed one of the worst, least credible anti-Hagel arguments of all,” wrote American Conservative columnist Daniel Larison, “which is essentially the Ted Cruz argument that Hagel needs to ‘prove’ that he is not in league with foreign governments or sympathetic with terrorists.”

Overcoming that kind of guilt-by-association politics was one of the points of the Hagel nomination. Wasn’t it? Rand Paul, too, had challenged the wisdom of the neoconservatives and been battered for it. If Hagel could be confirmed, it would mean you could name and shame the “Israel lobby” (or, okay, the “Jewish lobby”) without being banished to Siberia. If the Senate really debated Hagel’s views, really revisited the wisdom of the Iraq War and whether the 2007 surge worked and whether Iran can’t ever be negotiated with, it would expand the aperture of “serious” foreign policy debate.

Paul was aware of that. To him, delaying Hagel was in keeping with the actual goals of the realists and libertarians. “I wanted to get more information not only on Hagel but more information on [CIA nominee John] Brennan,” he said, after leaving the post-vote Republican luncheon. “That didn’t work because we didn’t stick together on it. Last week’s vote was useless. If you don’t stick together, you won’t have leverage.” And Paul will now turn his attention to the Brennan nomination, to demand and get more answers on the legality of the drone program and whether Americans, on American soil, could be targeted for killing. “It’s blatantly illegal—we have probably a dozen laws saying the CIA can’t operate in the United States, and neither can the Department of Defense.”

That wasn’t obvious to libertarians and paleo-conservatives. One year ago, Sen. Paul was criss-crossing key Republican primary and caucus states to whip up support for presidential candidate Ron Paul. I remember cranking the speedometer of a rental car, and parking illegally near the University of Northern Iowa, to see the Pauls work a fire-hazard-crowded ballroom. Ron Paul would go on to win that county. Rand Paul would go on to filibuster Chuck Hagel.

“Speaking for myself only, I do not support Rand Paul and have not for quite some time now,” said Ryan Langer, who leads the University of Northern Iowa’s Young Americans for Liberty chapter, a pro-Ron Paul organization. “In my opinion, while he may share his father’s last name, he certainly doesn’t share his principles, the Hagel vote just being further evidence of that.”

Rand Paul flat-out rejected that characterization. “I will say to anybody from the libertarian side who wants to believe that Hagel is the next coming of Harry Browne that they need to read a little more about his past,” he said. (Browne, the two-time Libertarian Party nominee for president, blamed 9/11 on an “insane” American foreign policy.) “Hagel’s been a promoter of the draft. Not a very libertarian idea. He’s been a promoter of U.N. peacekeeping troops around the world, and intervention. He doesn’t like unilateral intervention, but he’s fine with group intervention around the world. He voted for the PATRIOT Act. He voted for the Iraq War.”

But neither the Hagel campaign nor the Dump Hagel campaign really ever got to those issues. The Dump Hagel movement had no grand strategy larger than “Let’s see if this sticks to him.” Challenging his philosophy wouldn’t slow him down, so the Washington Free Beacon and Hagel skeptics scoured public and private records for damaging quotes. Sen. Lindsey Graham personally sent Hagel three letters asking him to explain speeches—did he really call the State Department an “adjunct” of Israel’s foreign ministry?—and asking him to let reporters check out his Senate papers, locked up at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Sen. John Cornyn went after Hagel with a gambit that probably backfired: A letter from 15 senators asking the president to withdraw the nomination, for the tautological reason that “no Secretary of Defense has been confirmed and taken office with more than three Senators voting against him.”

Democrats shrugged this stuff off. “Some of the opposition to Hagel was really over the top,” said Michigan Sen. Carl Levin on Tuesday. “It kind of answered itself by the end. It was kind of self-defeating.” Yet the Democrats never really tried to defend Hagel on the merits. They never cited the New Yorker-profile-ready quotes that made Hagel a star in 2006 and 2007.

Libertarians wanted that defense to come from Paul. Three years earlier, he humiliated neoconservatives who tried to crush his Senate campaign on the grounds that he wasn’t hawkish. “On foreign policy, [global war on terror], Gitmo, Afghanistan, Rand Paul is NOT one of us,” wrote Cesar Conda—a Cheney aide who would become Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s chief of staff.

Paul got that. Some of the loudest Hagel critics, he said, were “people who’ve been mean-spirited to my dad.” That was an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” approach, and he didn’t share it. “They’re basing [their support] more on the vitriol against him, and probably, some of that wasn’t fair. You could vote against Hagel for libertarian reasons, you could vote against him for conservative reasons.”

With that, Paul said he still might “give the president the prerogative to choose his Cabinet,” and he wrapped the interview.

Four hours later, Paul returned to the Senate floor. Here was the actual vote that would make Hagel the next secretary of defense, and he needed only 51 votes to be confirmed—a fait accompli. One after another, Republicans who’d given Hagel an “aye” on cloture switched and voted “nay.” Their votes would allow Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and chairman of the Emergency Committee for Israel, to say that “the overwhelming majority of senators from one of the two major parties voted against confirming Mr. Hagel.”

Paul walked to the well of the Senate with a group of fellow Republicans. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who’d voted yes on cloture after Hagel answered his letters, voted against his confirmation. A grinning Sen. Cornyn gratefully shook his hand. Then Paul leaned over the well to announce his vote.

“Aye,” he said.

The final tally was 58-to-41, but no other senator voted this way. Hours earlier, the Emergency Committee for Israel had given me a tentative statement congratulating Paul for “a pro-Israel vote today.” They cancelled that statement, effective immediately.