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The Oddest Bedfellows? Try Obama and Rand Paul
From the Wall Street Journal of Mon, 22 Dec 2014 17:28:02 EST
Sen. Rand Paul agrees with President Obama on a number of points, including closer relations with Cuba.
Sen. Rand Paul agrees with President Obama on a number of points, including closer relations with Cuba. Reuters

Of all of Washington’s odd couples, the oddest is turning out to be President Barack Obama and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul .

You often see this kind of thing in business and social circles: A pair who somehow seem to connect despite all their obvious differences. That is these two, which says a lot about shifting ideological lines, generational change and a fascinating 2016 presidential campaign debate to come.

The most recent example came last week, when Mr. Obama stunned Washington by announcing he was normalizing relations with Cuba after half a century of estrangement. One of the strongest voices of support came not from the president’s Democratic Party but from Sen. Paul, an almost-certain 2016 Republican presidential candidate.

Mr. Paul initially said the Cuba move was “probably a good idea,” then went much further. He wrote a piece for Time magazine declaring, “I think a policy of isolationism toward Cuba is misplaced and hasn’t worked,” and arguing that opening up the island nation to the forces of capitalism is the better way to promote change.

Next he engaged in a remarkable public feud with a fellow Republican senator and potential 2016 rival, Marco Rubio of Florida, who has staked out the polar opposite position on Cuba. In a series of Twitter messages directed at his colleague, Mr. Paul said, among other things, that Mr. Rubio “is acting like an isolationist who wants to retreat to our borders and perhaps build a moat. I reject this isolationism.”

That comment, of course, was a dig at those within his own party who call Mr. Paul’s distaste for military intervention a form of isolationism. By the weekend, Mr. Rubio responded by referring to the Cuba policy change as an example of “Obama-Paul foreign policy.”

That’s a bit much, and Mr. Paul replied, again via Twitter, that it is Mr. Rubio who has been backing Obama policy by supporting the president’s arming of Syrian rebels and aerial attacks in Libya. Still, it is true that Cuba is hardly the only place where Mr. Paul lands in roughly the same place as the Democratic president. The two are in sync on the virtue of pursuing negotiations with Iran on a deal to curb its nuclear program. And, though Mr. Obama has moved to start arming Syria’s opposition, both men actually have been skeptical of the virtues of doing so.

Domestically, Mr. Paul and the president hold a similar view on changing federal criminal sentencing guidelines to address racial and class disparities. Amid the unrest over the decision not to indict white police officers for the killings of black men in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., Mr. Paul wrote that “there is a gnawing feeling that simply being black in a high-crime area increases your risk for a deadly altercation with police.” That sentiment echoes almost precisely concerns Mr. Obama has voiced. And both Sen. Paul and the Obama administration have endorsed restoring voting rights to some felons after release from prison.

Of course, the president and the senator disagree on plenty of things—certainly more than they agree on overall—and Mr. Paul often is harshly critical of Mr. Obama’s leadership. He has excoriated the Obama record of using secret drone attacks on Islamic militants, chided the president for not pursuing free-trade agreements more forcefully, and has declared: “Around the world, we see the consequences of failed diplomacy and absence of leadership after six years of the Obama administration.”

He wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and he and the president are diametrically opposed on raising the minimum wage.

Still, the extent of overlap between Mr. Obama and a man from the other party who would like to replace him indicates Republicans are in for a serious ideological debate and a genuine challenge to some tenets of party orthodoxy in the next presidential campaign.

Mr. Paul is questioning comfortable party positions on multiple fronts. He says, in effect, that the party’s traditional inclination toward military intervention abroad needs to be reconsidered; that Republicans should be wary of government power generally, not just in areas where that is convenient; and that Republicans need to see how their views of government power are perceived as unfair in minority communities.

It is true that left and right often come together precisely in the libertarian zone where Mr. Paul operates. The result riles up many in the party’s establishment—which seems to bother Mr. Paul not at all—but also guarantees him a hearing on any college campus.

In presidential politics, there is a tendency for candidates to simply replicate the formula that is worked within their party in the past. That is decidedly not Rand Paul’s approach. He sees himself as an agent for change—one other area where he and the president are similar.

Write to Gerald F. Seib at jerry.seib@wsj.com



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