Rand Paul's become acceptably hawkish for a prospective GOP nominee, says ... John McCain

I’m blown away. Not because McCain is saying he’d back Paul in 2016 as the nominee; of course he’s going to say that while he’s thinking of running again for Senate in Arizona. What blows me away is his reasons for saying so. The great fear among hawks is that, for all of Rand’s posturing lately about destroying ISIS and standing up to Russia, there’s little daylight on foreign policy between him and Ron Paul. No matter how hawkish Rand gets during the primaries, that’s the trump card that rivals like Rubio and Cruz can and will play on him: He’s lying. He’s his father’s son.

Now here comes the super-hawk of all hawks to say … nope. His transformation is genuine. If I were Rand’s ad team, I’d beg Ryan Lizza to post the audio of this interview and then cut the McCain bit for an ad.

John McCain, one of Paul’s longtime critics, told me in August, “I see him evolving with experience, with travel, with hearings on the Foreign Relations Committee. I see him having a better grasp of many of the challenges we face than when he first got here. That doesn’t mean he is now a John McCain, but it certainly does mean that he has a greater appreciation and has been articulating that.” He compared him with Ron Paul. “His father is a person who really believes that the United States should not be engaged in foreign events and foreign countries. I think that Rand Paul is seeing a very unsettled world, one in significant turmoil, and I see him understanding and articulating what in my view is a realistic view of the United States and the importance of its leadership and role in the world.”

McCain cited as an example Paul’s shift on aid to Israel between 2011 and today. “Look at the Rand Paul alternative budget,” he said. “Have you heard of that? It cut aid to Israel; it cut defense in half.” More recently, Paul has said that he would cut foreign aid to five billion dollars per year, with most of that reserved for the Jewish state. “He made a trip to Israel about a year or so ago, and he came back a little bit different,” McCain said…

McCain told me that, if Rand Paul is the Republican nominee for President in 2016, he will support him. “I’ve seen him grow and I’ve seen him mature and I’ve seen him become more centrist. I know that if he were President or a nominee I could influence him, particularly some of his views and positions on national security. He trusts me particularly on the military side of things, so I could easily work with him. It wouldn’t be a problem.”

“It wouldn’t be a problem.” Coming from McCain, given Paul’s vulnerability among the GOP’s interventionists, that may be the single most valuable quasi-endorsement he’s received for his candidacy to date. Which is … baffling. Remember, a little more than a year ago, McCain was telling reporters that he didn’t know who he’d support if the 2016 election came down to Paul and his old friend Hillary Clinton. If memory serves, he later tried to play that off as a joke. But there’s nothing jokey about it; it would make all kinds of sense for Maverick, whose political brand these days is more about interventionism than Republicanism, to endorse a true blue hawk like Hillary than the “wacko bird” libertarian Paul. As recently as this past summer, former McCain right-hand-man Mark Salter said flat out that GOP hawks would have no choice but to back Hillary if forced to choose between her and Paul. And now here’s Maverick himself, in a splashy piece for the New Yorker, giving Rand the interventionist seal of approval. What happened?

No, seriously. What happened? I’m intrigued by what McCain says at the end of the excerpt about how Paul “trusts me” on military affairs and how he’s confident he could influence Paul behind the scenes. That almost makes it sound like the two have been huddling on foreign policy — which isn’t as crazy as it sounds, given how eager Rand is to remove the roadblocks to the nomination that hawks are putting up for him. If he’s willing to make a trip to Israel and drop his idea of cutting foreign aid to woo hawks, he’s probably willing to make nice with Maverick to try to show his good faith. Maybe there’s been some rapprochement behind the scenes. Except … how to explain, then, Rand accusing McCain recently (and baselessly) of having met with ISIS in Syria? The last thing Paul should want to do right now if he’s trying to earn brownie points with Maverick is accuse him of reaching out to jihadis. In fact, note that McCain’s comments quoted above were made in August; Lizza reached out to McCain more recently, after Rand started pointing fingers at him about ISIS, and asked him if his view of Paul had soured any. Guess what? It had:

Last week, I talked to John McCain again, and he was in a less generous mood. In an interview with the Daily Beast on September 17th, Rand Paul, apparently referring to a widely discredited Internet conspiracy theory, said that McCain had met with ISIS. “They had a doctored picture of me with Baghdadi!” McCain said, speaking of the leader of ISIS: “It is disappointing that he would pick up and legitimatize what was clearly information that was being pushed by people who are enemies of the United States.” McCain now dismissed Rand’s hawkish rhetoric about ISIS: “He said we have to destroy ISIS, and yet he has not described a strategy in order to achieve that goal.”

Baffling. Why would Paul work to move McCain from the “enemy” column into “neutral,” only to move him back into “enemy”?

Oh, and for all the Rubio/Cruz/everyone else fans out there wondering if there’s any soundbite material from all this for their own campaign ads, there sure is. Here’s Rand’s mother, Carol Paul, explaining why Ron doesn’t like doing interviews about Rand. Exit quotation: “Everybody that calls him wants to argue about their differences. They don’t really have differences. They might have fractional differences about how to do things, but the press always want to make it into some kind of story that isn’t there.” Rand Paul 2016: “Fractional differences” from a guy who finished way out of the running twice.

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