The big news from last Thursday's Republican Presidential Debate on Fox News was the absence of what Meghan Kelly called, "the elephant not in the room." Thanks to the ongoing feud between her and front runner Donald Trump, the latter was not on the stage. In what was largely treated as a footnote, Rand Paul was.
Several media have asserted the debate was more substantive without Trump, the issues having more space in the absence of his overpowering personality and the likely attention that would have been paid to his controversial style. But it wasn't Trump's absence that made this debate more substantive. It was Rand Paul's presence. Without him, the last spectacle wasn't a debate at all.
Debate moderators are television people. They are interested in whatever makes the best television and gets the highest ratings. The debate moderators on Thursday, echoing the larger media narrative, continually pushed the establishment vs. anti-establishment theme. That's certainly a phenomenon in this election cycle, but it really means nothing in terms of policy.
The whole purpose of this exercise is to determine the difference, if any, between the candidates seeking the presidency. Without Rand Paul, there isn't a difference to determine, not even with Trump. Trumps style might be different, but he's a lot more like an establishment Republican than the media narrative would have one believe.
The president's greatest sphere of influence is in foreign policy. The very first power delegated to the POTUS in the Constitution is Commander-in-Chief of the military. The second is making treaties, requiring the consent only of the Senate, not the entire legislature. It is here the president has the most direct power, especially since WWII, when almost no one seems to consider a declaration of war by congress necessary before premeditated military action.
No one, it seems, except Rand Paul, who brought a proposal for a declaration of war against ISIS to the Senate floor in 2014. The NY Times was correct to point out that Paul's proposal was unique in that it called for a declaration of war, rather than just an AUMF. This isn't just an arcane parliamentary distinction. There is a substantive difference between an AUMF and a declaration of war. Among Republicans and Democrats, only Rand Paul seems to understand that.
That's not to say Paul is eager for a war with the quasi-state. He only proposed the declaration because President Obama was already waging war on ISIS without one, unconstitutionally, in his opinion. He wasn't alone. Indeed, Paul is the only Republican not gleefully boasting of the martial destruction he will visit upon Iraq and Syria. His containment strategy is the only one that sounds different from what we'd expect if we reelected Bush/Cheney. Paul recognizes the danger ISIS represents, but doesn't vow to "make sand glow in the dark." Nor does he blow the ISIS threat out of all realistic proportion, as does all of his opponents.
Paul also seems to be the only candidate in either party who noticed how disastrous toppling Middle Eastern dictators has been thus far this century. Hussein was deposed and replaced by ISIS. Mubarak was deposed and replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, then a military junta. Ghaddafi was deposed and replaced by utter chaos, with various radical Islamic groups vying for power.
His opponents in both parties are eager to get rid of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. They seem to forget what the second "S" in ISIS stands for. Only Paul reminds voters in either party who would likely replace Assad, should he be deposed.
On domestic policy, the Republicans are throwing around their usual platitudes about shrinking government and free markets, but who is actually proposing any specific reduction in government interventions, beyond tax cuts? Certainly not Trump. He's running on raising taxes on imports. Cruz, to be fair, is a little better in this area, but when it was time to put his Senate vote where his mouth is on the most damaging government intervention into the economy, he didn't show up.
Finally, anyone truly committed to limited government and individual liberty must oppose the insane federal war on drugs that has imprisoned generations of black men at a hugely disproportionate rate. Sadly, Paul's desire to decriminalize marijuana not only sets him apart from the Republicans, it sets him apart from all presidential candidates in either major party. One might almost say he sounds like a Democrat on this, just not like any Democrat running for president right now.
Rand Paul is lagging far behind the leaders in the polls. He says he will do much better when the actual voting begins, as polling methodology is largely excluding his younger supporters. There may be something to that; time will tell. But win or lose, we need Rand Paul around. Without him, we'll have to come up with some other word besides "debate."