When the Republican National Committee passed a resolution last week unequivocally criticizing the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance programs, it was tempting to take it as yet another sign that Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) -- the party’s most prominent critic of hawkish security policy -- is the frontrunner for the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination. As a number of political commentators have pointed out, it does seem that the next Republican presidential primary will be an unusual contest, reflecting a party base at odds with the establishment over major public policy questions, including national security priorities. But contrary to what commentators such as Atlantic contributing editor Peter Beinart and New York magazine writer Frank Rich have recently suggested, that doesn’t mean that the GOP is likely to end up with Paul as its nominee.

It is true that the Republican base and Paul both espouse views that diverge from the policy preferences of the Republican establishment. But it would be a mistake to conclude that those divergences overlap significantly. That is especially true on questions of national security, which Beinart suggests would be one of Paul’s major selling points in a Republican primary. On the surface, it may seem that the anti-interventionist Paul has much in common with a GOP base that is increasingly wary of overseas interventions. But Paul and the Republican base have much more cause to disagree on national security than it seems at first glance.

Consider the foreign policy address Paul delivered at the Center for the National Interest earlier this month. In that speech, Paul bucked the party establishment by citing U.S. President Barack Obama’s diplomatic resolution to Syria’s chemical weapons program as a possible model for dealing with the nuclear weapons programs of Iran and North Korea. He also emphasized the need for a policy of containment rather than preemptive war in dealing with jihadist terrorism and declared that “dialogue is nearly always preferable to war.” The speech was in line with Rand’s previous calls for deep cuts in U.S. military spending and foreign aid, strategic disentanglement overseas, and a dramatic scaling back of the United States’ postwar "national security state" including its targeting and surveillance of suspected terrorists.

Many among the Republican foreign policy elite dismiss his views as “isolationist” -- or even “wacko,” in the words of Senator John McCain (R-AZ). But it would be more accurate to refer to them as Jeffersonian, to borrow a term from Bard College professor Walter Russell Mead. According to Mead, Jeffersonians emphasize the need to avoid military interventions abroad. For proponents of this tradition, the United States should set an example to others while keeping to its own affairs and not intervening forcibly overseas. The moral and financial costs of U.S. foreign policy strategy should be kept to a bare minimum. The Jeffersonians' chief concerns are the supposedly corrupting effects of international warfare and power politics on American traditions -- effects they typically describe as increased taxes, large standing armed forces, and the erosion of civil liberties. This description fits Paul's views quite closely.

The inclination toward Jeffersonian foreign policy is today stronger within the Republican Party -- just as it is stronger among Democrats and political independents -- than it has been for a good many years. Indeed, one might say that the Jeffersonian tendency is stronger right now within the GOP than at any time since 1952, when Senator Robert Taft (R-OH) ran a very close race for the Republican presidential nomination. A widely discussed Pew Research Center poll from just last month revealed that a bare majority (52 percent) of Americans now believe the United States should “mind its own business internationally.” This all would seem to work in Paul's favor as he considers a run for the presidency.

What outside observers often miss, however, is that the conservative base of the Republican Party has long been inclined toward what Mead calls Jacksonianism. This tendency is easy to miss because it is badly underrepresented among elite foreign policy commentators in either party. (Unlike Jeffersonianism, which has pockets of elite support in the academy and at Washington think tanks such as the Cato Institute.) Foreign policy Jacksonians are intense nationalists who take great pride in the United States' military and prioritize protecting its sovereignty, honor, well-being, and security in what they view as a dangerous world. Jacksonians are generally skeptical of elite-sponsored legal, multilateral, and idealistic plans for global improvement -- hence the surface resemblance to Rand’s views. But once their country is at war, threatened, or under attack, Jacksonians tend to be relentless and unyielding.

The practical and current policy implications of the distinction between Jacksonian and Jeffersonian tendencies within the GOP can be illustrated by drilling down into some of the less-reported findings of that same Pew poll from December. The poll found that 63 percent of Republicans want the United States to remain the world's "sole military superpower." A whopping 73 percent of Republicans believe Iran is "not serious" about addressing concerns about its nuclear weapons program. Some 80 percent of Republicans believe the United States is "less respected" than it was a decade ago. (It is unlikely that those Republicans view this as a good thing.) The highest foreign policy priority listed for Republicans was "protecting U.S. from terrorism." Moreover, the December Pew poll found that 51 percent of all Americans view Obama as "not tough enough" on foreign policy and national security, 37 percent view him as "about right," and only five percent view him as "too tough." It is more than likely that the proportion of Republicans, specifically, who view Obama as "not tough enough" is well above 51 percent.

These findings are consistent with similar foreign policy polls by Pew, Gallup, and numerous other organizations. Over 70 percent of Republicans support drone strikes against suspected terrorists (Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2013); favor airstrikes against Iran rather than allowing that country to develop nuclear weapons (Haaretz, March 19, 2013); believe that U.S. military spending today is either about right or too low (Gallup, February 21, 2013); and think the "best way to ensure peace is through military strength" (Pew Center, June 4, 2012).

This presents a problem for the GOP's sincere Jeffersonians such as Paul. Jeffersonians feel that Obama should scale back on U.S. drone strikes overseas, cut military spending further, and make more of an effort to conciliate Iran. They believe that Obama has, on the whole, been too aggressive in pursuing a war on terrorism continued from the Bush era and, at the same time, insufficiently willing to pursue diplomatic engagement with rival powers. The problem for Paul is that this is not how most Republicans feel about Obama's foreign policy. The most common GOP complaint outside the Beltway is hardly that the president is “too tough” when it comes to counterterrorism, or that he has not given diplomatic engagement with Iran and other countries enough of a chance. That might reflect the feelings of liberal Democrats. But Paul will not be running as a Democrat.

To be sure, the majority of grassroots conservatives are deeply skeptical of humanitarian intervention, Middle Eastern democracy promotion, foreign aid expenditure, and nation-building projects overseas -- especially as handled by Obama. Insofar as Republican internationalists favor the any of those measures, they have yet to win over (or win back) the party's base, and that does mark a striking shift from the George W. Bush era. Still, the decline of conservative GOP support for idealistic foreign policies hardly leaves the Jeffersonians as the only game in town. Today, as so often before, the pivotal foreign policy players inside the GOP are the hawkish American nationalists best described as Jacksonian. And if Paul's speech earlier this month is any indication, he isn't exactly speaking for them yet.

This is not to suggest that Paul has no chance at all of winning the 2016 primary. Party primaries tend to be more unpredictable than general elections, and with multiple candidates running, the various contenders may slice up the vote and run through the states in surprising ways. For example, even if Paul's Jeffersonian foreign policy views represent only a minority of GOP primary voters, multiple other candidates running as national security hawks might divide up the Jacksonian vote, which would leave Paul at no numerical disadvantage. And of course the majority of voters these days do not cast their ballot on foreign policy issues, but on issues of domestic politics and personality. All of which is to say that Paul really does have a shot at winning the 2016 presidential nomination.

That raises the question, of course, of whether Paul could possibly win the White House. Here, there is yet more reason for skepticism. One way to put it is that Taft and the anti-interventionist wing of the GOP lost in 1952 for good reason. The Jeffersonian strain is very American and sometimes useful as a corrective, but the public and most foreign policy elites have never considered it a realistic governing philosophy. Indeed, if Paul managed to win the White House, he would have a very difficult time staffing his administration, as most GOP foreign policy experts with any practical experience are devoted internationalists. A President Paul would therefore face a serious dilemma: either he could surround himself with foreign policy advisers who are not Jeffersonian, or he could surround himself with foreign policy advisers without much executive experience.

Paul's supporters might also want to consult the record of another prominent American and instinctive foreign policy Jeffersonian who ran for president a few years ago on the premise of international retrenchment, demilitarization, and moral superiority. He found in office that international security threats were more challenging than he had expected when he first ran for the White House, and consequently circled back -- however reluctantly -- toward some of the national security policies of his predecessor. His name is Obama.

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  • COLIN DUECK is is an Associate Professor in George Mason University’s Department of Public and International Affairs.
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