Would McCain support Hillary in 2016 if Rand Paul's the nominee?

On the one hand, I want to dismiss this as mischievous shinola-stirring by lefty Bill Scher and righty Matt Lewis. On the other hand, it seems … all too plausible, doesn’t it?

Ted Cruz hasn’t showed his cards on foreign policy yet but if he ends up tilting isolationist too, you could apply this same reasoning to his candidacy. Rand Paul wasn’t the only “wacko bird” named by McCain, after all.

More important but less noticed was McCain’s April 18 speech to the Center for New American Security that threw down the gauntlet against the Paul forces, lashing out against isolationism and calling for “a new Republican internationalism.” He concluded by lamenting, “There are times these days when I feel that I have more in common on foreign policy with President Obama than I do with some in my own party.”

Where might the “new Republican internationalists” go if Paul wins this intra-party battle? Considering that likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton helped engineer the U.N.-backed military coalition that ousted Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and reportedly pushed Obama to directly arm the Syrian resistance, it’s not hard to envision a “Republicans for Hillary” campaign if the alternative is Rand Paul…

[I]f any contemporary politician might be willing to bet his political legacy on supplanting a wayward Republican Party with a new party, it would be John McCain. He has long branded himself a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican.”

Would McCain dream of doing that? Well, consider a few things. One: As Lewis notes, he’s buds with Joe Lieberman, who crossed his own party to support McCain on foreign policy grounds in 2008. There’s precedent here among Maverick’s own inner circle. Two: He’s also buds with Hillary Clinton. They’ve even been drinking buddies on Senate trips abroad. He wouldn’t have to put aside personal dislike to do this, unless his tough questioning of her on Benghazi caused a rift we don’t know about. Three: If he decides before 2016 that this is his last term in the Senate, he’ll have nothing to lose electorally by backing the Democrat. On the contrary, it’ll do wonders for his “legacy” within the media after falling out with them by running against St. Barack five years ago. Just look at his vote on background checks (one of only four Republicans to vote yes) and his renewed interest in amnesty. He’s re-building a brand. Four: McCain undoubtedly knows that some libertarians supported Ron Paul and even The One himself in 2008 out of disdain for Maverick, in great part because of his hyper-interventionism. Sticking it to Paul in 2016 by backing Hillary not only would strike a blow for “peace through strength,” it’d be revenge on a constituency that had little use for McCain either.

Lewis is right that Paul will try to make nice with McCain before the primaries precisely for this reason, but he can only go so far. The Paul election strategy depends on straddling Ron Paul voters and mainstream conservatives; to make McCain happy-ish on foreign policy would mean completely abandoning the Paulites, which he simply can’t do. Besides, with rumors of Cruz’s candidacy swirling, Paul has bigger worries than what Maverick is up to. Cruz is a major threat to him as an outlet for tea partiers who like Paul’s politics generally but don’t care for his dad’s; Cruz gives them most of the upside of Rand-ism without some of the potential downsides. Here’s the real question, though: How badly would it hurt Paul if McCain did endorse Clinton? It wouldn’t hurt at all among the base, which treats Maverick as an object of scorn, and few Republican pols apart from his sidekick Lindsey would follow him, but I think it’d hurt badly nonetheless. Having the elder statesman and former nominee announce that Paul’s foreign policy is a dealbreaker would give pause to plenty of low-information centrist Republicans and would serve as a rallying point for hawkish righty pundits to criticize Paul more aggressively. Some hawkish rank-and-file GOP voters might even relish the chance to make libertarians sweat for once about aisle-crossing and third-party votes on election day after two election cycles in which Ron Paul supporters threatened to stay home or vote independent. And of course the media will treat McCain’s defection as a political Super Bowl, even though on balance most of them are closer to Paul on foreign policy than to Maverick. It’s not an insignificant threat. I wonder if McCain’s already thinking about it.

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