Alex Robledo, Georgetown:
Many political pundits have argued that Carly Fiorina won the second GOP debate. They’re right—though it depends on how you define “won.” If we are talking purely presentation and delivery, I would absolutely agree: Carly Fiorina commanded the stage that night. She made the popular remarks eloquently, eliciting thunderous applause from the crowd. She understood that presentation has a knack for deciding the ‘winners’ from the ‘losers,’ and she gave the audience what they were looking for: fiery, zeal-filled rhetoric, particularly on foreign policy. However, the president’s job isn’t to look sharp and talk slick. The president’s job is to lead the country and to advance policy ideas that make the most sense for the people. Substance is the crown jewel of political rhetoric—at least it’s supposed to be, even if smart policy ideas don’t always get the crowds jumping out of their seats right away.
On the policy side of the debate, Fiorina—and the vast majority of the candidates—agreed with each other on the same old talking points of the past on foreign policy: we shouldn’t cooperate with Iran, we should deal aggressively with Russia, build up the military, and just “act tough.” It was everything you’d expect from a Republican Party that continues to veer hawkish.
Only one candidate dared to speak out against the irrationality of it all. Sen. Rand Paul may have been at the end of the debate stage, and he may not have received thunderous applause from the GOP insiders in the audience, but he made the most policy sense out of every candidate on the stage that night. Boldly defying the hawkish status quo, Sen. Paul argued that foreign interventions do not always work; on the contrary, an aggressive foreign policy can actually make us worse off in the long run. Speaking on interventionism and its grave consequences, Sen. Paul argued:
“Sometimes both sides of the civil war are evil, and sometimes intervention sometimes makes us less safe. This is the real debate we have to have in the Middle East. Every time we have toppled a secular dictator, we have gotten chaos, the rise of radical Islam, and we’re more at risk. So I think we need to think before we act, and know most interventions, if not a lot of them in the Middle East, have actually backfired on us.”
Sen. Paul didn’t argue for the same, tried-and-failed policies of the last decade—even though it was what the crowd wanted. He didn’t grandstand or fear monger about boogeymen out to get us. He told it like it was, and he succinctly argued that the interventions peddled by both sides over the last decade have been disastrous for the Middle East, and even the United States itself.
Unlike his competition, Sen. Paul wasn’t there to sweep people off their feet with flowery, but ultimately empty, rhetoric. He was there for a debate over the reality of foreign policy. As Sen. Paul argued, the very first question we should ourselves ask is, should we even get involved in the first place? Whether it’s toppling President Assad in Syria or engaging ISIS with American troops in Iraq, there’s a good case to be made that we should not get entrenched into more long, costly, and ultimately failed interventions. In just the last 14 years alone, we’ve already seen it play out twice in Afghanistan and Iraq; three times if you include the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
The real debate Republicans ought to have should not be on the degree of interventionism, but rather whether intervention is even the right option. It’s not a matter of whether we should send arms, deploy boots on the ground, or even unilaterally bomb other countries. Given our abysmal record in just the last two decades alone, intervention should not be presupposed. Sen. Paul understood this, and he was willing to stand alone in advocating a policy that hasn’t yet been tried and failed. For that, he handily won the foreign policy debate, even if his arguments fell flat with the debate audience.
What pundits often forget is that the silence of political insiders does not translate into silence from the American people. Many Americans, both conservative Republicans and even liberal Democrats, believe Sen. Paul’s noninterventionist attitude toward foreign policy is the most sensible path for the United States. Thus far, no other candidate can lay claim to the broad range of support that Sen. Paul has. If Republicans want to capitalize on this support, which can prove invaluable in the general election, they need to at least consider adopting Sen. Paul’s foreign policy.
The noninterventionism espoused by Sen. Paul is neither a new nor “fringe” philosophy, it’s the common sense policy the Republican Party once stood for. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of rallying war cry that gets people fired up. John Kass of the Chicago Tribune characterized the noninterventionist worldview best: “There is no buzz to such rhetoric, no bloody gusto, no King Leonidas abs of steel, no Joan of Arc with a sword. It’s just grown-up talk, and so, quite likely, not entertaining at all.”
Many people will likely overlook Sen. Rand Paul’s debate performance last Wednesday because he wasn’t the firebrand sophist that Fiorina or Rubio were. Too often, politics ultimately comes down to style at the expense of substance. If we continue to pick our candidates based on how well they talk, rather than on the substance of their speech, we’ll do so at the cost of very sensible and much-needed policies. Fortunately, there is still time to have a real debate about rational ideas.