Beginning sometime in 2013, there were a spate of headlines about the senator from Kentucky who was leading the Republican presidential field. "Rand Paul, 2016 Republican front-runner" was the Washington Post's version. Business Insider sought to explain "How Rand Paul became the GOP frontrunner for 2016." The Atlantic proclaimed in early 2014 "Rand Paul is the 2016 Republican frontrunner."
Paul declined in the polls not long afterward and dropped out following a distant fifth-place showing in the Iowa caucuses. Politico even ran a hall of shame of frontrunner Paul takes (including one by yours truly)
Some of Paul's failure to catch on as a presidential candidate had to do with peaking too soon — it happens. The libertarian moment that fueled Paul's rise had already passed by the time the primaries had rolled around. Much of it, like so much else in the 2016 Republican race, was about Donald Trump sucking all the oxygen out of the room.
But a lot of it had to do with the rise of ISIS — and, to a lesser extent, the debate over the Iran nuclear deal — awakening dormant Republican hawkish tendencies in a way that made it difficult for Paul to adjust while clearly differentiating himself from non-libertarian GOP candidates.
There's a real risk for populist Republicans, who have also taken a more dovish foreign policy line than the Cold War era GOP, that Russia's invasion of Ukraine will create a similar dynamic threatening their influence over the party. Hawks like Liz Cheney certainly hope so. Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance has certainly taken a pounding over his comments about Ukraine being less important than certain domestic problems. Former President Trump has courted a similar backlash.
Trump managed to square the circle of intervention skepticism and "bombing the s--t" out of ISIS in 2016, beating multiple more hawkish candidates, including Hillary Clinton. He might be able to do it again on Russia. He has certainly marginalized the Cheney types who are most eager to make the populist moment as brief as the libertarian one.
On the other hand, there are a lot of people trying to turn national conservatism into a more blue-collar neoconservatism. Call it America First — to bomb foreign countries. The cable news chyrons about Russian President Vladimir Putin lend themselves well to Cold War 2.0 positioning.
They may not get a no-fly zone in Ukraine, but they could make the GOP a no-fly zone for doves.