Rand Paul 2009: Do we really want to be the party that backs Dick Cheney on torture?

Do we? This is why I posted that HuffPo poll yesterday. Fully 68 percent of Americans, including large majorities of both parties, think torturing terrorists who may have information on future attacks is always, sometimes, or rarely justified — and that’s when you refer to it explicitly as “torture” instead of the kinder/gentler “enhanced interrogation.” Only 22 percent oppose it categorically. It’s strange to think of a boutique issue like this becoming a major subplot in the next election, especially so far removed from 9/11 and waterboarding by the CIA that happened in the years after, but given the polling it’ll be hard for Paul’s rivals to resist. They’re going to use this as a litmus test for him on national defense: Would President Rand refuse to use every tool in his arsenal to thwart an impending attack, knowing that a majority of the public supports torture? (Can’t wait to hear what President Hillary would do!)

This new scooplet comes, by the way, from David Corn at Mother Jones, the same reporter at the same lefty magazine who dug up what Paul said about Dick Cheney changing his mind on Iraq after working for Halliburton. Maybe he’s doing his own deep-dive through the YouTube archives, mining Paul’s chats with people like Alex Jones and Antiwar.com to find shiny nuggets illuminating the libertarian/conservative divide, or maybe he’s being pointed in the right direction by “helpful” GOP competitors. Either way, Grade-A sh*t-stirring. Corn’s summary of Paul’s position as stated at the time across several interviews:

Paul was firmly in the camp of those who consider the harsh interrogations used by the CIA as torture. He believed that Bush and Cheney were responsible for such torture. He came across as sympathetic to the notion that they could be prosecuted for having ordered torture, and he certainly indicated he thought Cheney was bad for the GOP. But Paul, who as a senator has demanded investigations of US drone policy and NSA surveillance and called for Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to be tried for perjury, would not go so far as to endorse an investigation or prosecution of Bush and Cheney. (He was running in a Republican primary at the time.)

Paul’s comments about the Bush-Cheney administration’s use of torture—like his assertion that Cheney helped launch the Iraq war to profit Halliburton—show that the confrontation between these two camps in the GOP is not merely a good-faith policy dispute over the appropriate deployment of military power overseas. This is a clash of cultures in which motives are deeply questioned. It seems Paul views the most recent vice president of his own party as a treasonous war-profiteer who gave a green light to criminal activity. Cheney considers Paul and his ilk as ill-informed and dangerous isolationists. With a wide-open campaign for the Republican presidential nomination nearing, this uncivil civil war can be expected to grow in ferocity, as the GOP continues to wrestle with its past and future.

Follow the link for Paul’s exact quotes. Here’s what he said about Cheney:

If Republicans want Dick Cheney to be sort of the representative of our party, still defending torture, which is not something America stands for, it’s just another way to shrink the Republican Party.

A Paul fan argued in Headlines that Rand, ironically, isn’t any different on this point from his old friend John McCain, who did okay in the 2008 primaries despite opposing Bush and Cheney on torture. Right, but as a war hero and superhawk, Maverick was bulletproof on the question of whether he’d be aggressive enough as C-in-C. If anything, his problem was the opposite: Various Democrats accused him of having too much of a “temper” to be a responsible leader on foreign policy, which was their way of insinuating that the old man was crazy and might fire off some nukes in a fit of pique. It’s a textbook only-Nixon-can-go-to-China situation. If you’re famously hawkish, you can afford a high-profile dovish position or two. If, like Rand, you’re suspected of being dovish in the first place, not so much. (Which, of course, is why he’s been busy lately flirting with hawks on Russia and defense spending.)

But I digress. Do Republicans “want Dick Cheney to be sort of the representative of our party” on this issue, at least? I’ve always been fascinated by the enduring respect Cheney seems to enjoy from most grassroots conservatives even though they’re critical of so many features of the Bush years, from spending to “compassionate conservatism” to nation-building to the NSA. My sense is that it’s because he seems to care not at all that the left detests him. He believes in an aggressive foreign policy, up to and including enhanced interrogation if it’ll help defuse a threat, and that won’t change no matter how many op-ed pages screech at him over it. That’s another reason why torture is one of the more interesting subplots of the next primaries: It’ll determine whether tea partiers, who made a senator of Paul four years ago, really trust him or Cheney more on defense issues. Rand’s entire 2016 bet is that the grassroots has tilted libertarian across the board. Has it?