Did Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) betray his father's political movement by endorsing Mitt Romney last week? No... but the content of Rand's endorsement ought to be alarming for the supporters of Rep. Ron Paul's (R-Texas) presidential campaigns, and for anyone interested in a more restrained and prudent foreign policy. While Rand is not as strictly non-interventionist as his father, no one could confuse him for a hawk in the mold of Florida's Marco Rubio. When the Kentucky senator praised Romney for his "mature" foreign policy and asserted that the Republican nominee believed war should be a last resort, he hurt his reputation with his strongest supporters and undermined the critique of Republican foreign policy that has been central to his father's message. No less important, Rand provided Romney with valuable political cover for a foreign policy that appears to be every bit as reckless as that of George W. Bush.
During an interview with Sean Hannity, Sen. Paul described his meeting with Romney by saying, "I came away from it feeling he would be a very responsible commander-in-chief. I don't think he'll be reckless. I don't think he'll be rash. And I think that he realizes and believes as I do that war is a last resort and something we don't rush willy-nilly into. And I came away feeling that he'll have mature attitude and beliefs towards foreign policy."
Rand's approval of Romney's foreign policy threatens to alienate many of his core supporters.
Normally, a late endorsement of the presumptive Republican nominee by a junior senator from a reliably Republican state would be unimportant. However, Rand Paul is widely and correctly regarded as the most likely heir to the leadership of the movement his father began. It seems likely that he will pursue the Republican nomination in 2016 or 2020 as the candidate of both Tea Party activists and Ron Paul supporters, and the 2012 Ron Paul campaign has been laying the organizational foundations for that future run. This is why the endorsement matters. Rand's approval of Romney's foreign policy threatens to alienate many of his core supporters, and it lends additional support to the Republican foreign policy status quo that he is supposed to be challenging.
The problem is not just that Paul gave Romney a free pass on foreign policy. He lent credibility to the idea that Romney's aggressive rhetoric on the subject doesn't mean anything, and can therefore be safely dismissed by voters worried about a return to the Bush era. Unfortunately, there is every reason to believe that Romney is channeling the views of his most hawkish advisers and promoting the foreign policy favored by veterans of the Bush administration. There is nothing in the public record to suggest that Romney's foreign policy would be one that Rand Paul could support.
Far from believing that war should be a last resort, Romney is on record supporting "preventive" wars in Iraq and Libya, and he has emphasized his readiness to wage "preventive" war against Iran. By definition, an advocate of "preventive" war rejects the idea that war should be a last resort. Romney may not seem reckless, but the Iran policy he and many of his advisers promote undoubtedly is.
As for having "mature" views on foreign policy, Romney has not provided much evidence of maturity in his policy statements. On Russia, China, NATO, and Afghanistan, Romney has made statements that were demonstrably false, provocative, illogical, or sharply at odds with his own advisers' views. From describing Russia as "our number one geopolitical foe" to rejecting negotiations with the Taliban that his advisers support, Romney has been developing a reputation for being neither mature nor responsible.
That isn't surprising, since Romney has essentially no foreign policy experience. His policy statements serve as a reminder that he is one of the least prepared major party nominees on foreign policy in the post-WWII era. Because of that, he has surrounded himself with advisers from the previous Republican administration. That is the common practice for similarly inexperienced politicians. Unfortunately for Romney, the previous administration's foreign policy record was largely one of failure, unforced errors, and one very costly and unnecessary war. It is hardly reassuring to know that Romney's policies will be shaped by many of the same advisers responsible for such poor results.
If Romney wins in November, we should all hope that Rand Paul's assessment of his foreign policy is correct. That requires us to believe that everything Romney has said up to this point is irrelevant and his conduct of foreign policy will be dramatically different from what he has said he will do. That's not very likely. Contrary to popular belief, candidates do tend to follow through on their foreign policy campaign rhetoric because they want to or because they feel constrained to do so, and what they say during the campaign is often a reliable guide to how they will govern.
Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.