The inclusion of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., among the top tier of possible 2016 presidential candidates has been premised in part on the perception that the Republican electorate has been moving closer to his noninterventionist views on foreign policy. This has corresponded with discussion of whether the U.S. is entering a libertarian moment.
But it may be time to start re-thinking this perception.
As the terrorist group ISIS has made gains in Iraq and Syria, exposing the world to its brutality, there has been growing outrage — especially on the right — about President Obama's listless response. And this has triggered a shift among opinion on the right when it comes to America's role in the world.
According to a Pew poll released on Thursday, a plurality of 46 percent of Republicans said that the U.S. does "too little" on global problems, compared with 37 percent who said the U.S. does "too much." That's a significant change from November 2013, when 52 percent of Republicans said the U.S. did "too much" and just 18 percent said "too little."
What's especially relevant to Paul's presidential ambitions is that the shift is most pronounced among the group that should be the natural audience for his limited government message.
"Tea Party Republicans’ views of the U.S. role in solving world problems have changed dramatically since last November," Pew noted. "Today, 54% of Republicans and GOP leaners who agree with the Tea Party say it does too little to help solve world problems; just 33% say it does too much. Last year, opinions were nearly the reverse: 54% of Tea Party Republicans said the U.S. did too much global problem-solving while 22% said it did too little."
The poll was first brought to my attention by the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, who sees it as an evidence of Republicans "reestablish[ing] their hawkishness." I wouldn't necessarily go that far, as it's unclear from this poll how much appetite there is for military intervention of the kind advocated by Republicans such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. But I do think this development, if it's the start of a longer-term trend, is bad news for Paul's 2016 ambitions.
Paul's best hope for capturing the nomination is an environment in which economic and fiscal issues are all-consuming, and where foreign policy isn't much in the news. But to the extent that foreign policy is a dominant issue and the popular sentiment on the right is that Obama is being too passive, it will only serve to highlight Paul's differences with the base. As I wrote on Thursday, Paul's inability to articulate a position on what he would do now to counter the threat of ISIS demonstrates the difficulty he's going to have responding to the current zeitgeist among Republicans.