Politics & Government

Sam Youngman: Can beating up on refugees save Rand Paul’s presidential campaign?

Rand Paul speaks during Republican presidential debate at Milwaukee Theatre, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, in Milwaukee.
Rand Paul speaks during Republican presidential debate at Milwaukee Theatre, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, in Milwaukee. Associated Press

On Friday night around 7 p.m., while the world looked on in horror as terrorists in Paris made flesh our collective nightmares, Rand Paul took to Twitter.

With uncertainty, fear and carnage gripping the globe, Kentucky’s junior U.S. Senator, in the cellar when it comes to presidential polls, was focused — on Marco Rubio.

“Do you stand with me or Marco Rubio on spending? #StandWithRand,” Paul asked on Twitter.

The post was later deleted, but it painted a pretty clear picture of Paul’s latest campaign predicament.

Paul, who Rubio referred to as an isolationist during the last GOP debate, has a problem with Republican primary voters when it comes to foreign policy.

The question Paul posed was one he hammered Rubio on during that debate, questioning Rubio’s conservatism because of the Florida senator’s proposal to spend $1 trillion over 10 years on defense spending.

While that kind of argument once solidified Paul’s conservative credentials, it now looks idealistic and even naive to a Republican base that not that long ago backed President George W. Bush’s efforts to spread freedom around the world.

The more dangerous the world appears, the less appealing Paul’s foreign policy ideas are to a party that identifies with a robust and well-funded military.

Friday night’s attacks in Paris undoubtedly served to remind GOP primary voters that Paul is the dove in a field full of hawks, and if he had any poll numbers to speak of, they would likely plummet as a result.

So naturally, Paul turned his attention to immigration and refugees — and Rubio.

On Monday, Paul announced that he was introducing legislation that would suspend visa issuance for people from “high risk” countries and implement an additional waiting period for background checks for people from other countries.

Paul, noting that two al Qaida-Iraq terrorists were arrested in Bowling Green in 2009, argued that “the time has come to stop terrorists from walking in our front door.”

When it comes to trying to prevent refugees from entering the country, Paul has been consistent, offering an amendment to Rubio’s “Gang of Eight” immigration proposal that would have increased scrutiny of refugees entering the country.

And since Friday, Paul has been consistently tying the issue to Rubio, whom the Kentucky long shot apparently views as his biggest roadblock to the Republican nomination.

He followed his announcement Monday with a fundraising email — the subject line was “No Refugees” — that made questionable claims about the terrorists in Paris and attacked Rubio throughout.

It doesn’t matter that the known terrorists were all from Europe, and that the authenticity of a passport found at one of the sites — the passport that Paul and 26 governors (along with Kentucky governor-elect Matt Bevin) cited as evidence that a terrorist sneaked into Paris posing as a refugee — has been called into question.

“The terrorists in Paris utilized the refugee crisis as a means to penetrate European borders and ultimately commit acts of terror,” Paul wrote.

That’s a pretty concrete conclusion to draw based on incomplete media reports, and what better place to share that news than in a fundraising email for a struggling presidential campaign?

A host of Republicans and some Democrats have been eager to join Paul’s isolationist response to Friday’s attacks, cooler heads viewed the senator’s new legislation — and subsequent fundraising efforts — as nothing more than fear-mongering.

Duke University’s Peter Feaver, a veteran of the National Security Council under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, told the Herald-Leader that Paul “has been struggling to gain an audience ever since the dramatic events of 2014 — the rise of ISIL, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Chinese growing adventurism — took the bloom off of the neo-isolationist rose.”

“His gambit here is to add in a dose of nativism in response to the Paris attacks,” Feaver said. “His proposal is bad policy, and any political appeal is likely to be short-lived. It is hard to best Donald Trump in a competition of irresponsible proposals for closing the border.”

To be sure, there are some very real and uncomfortable questions being raised in the wake of the Paris attacks about the role of the United States in helping refugees from war-torn countries.

There are moral questions — National Journal’s Ron Fournier, among others, noted that this chapter “brings to mind one of the ugliest chapters in U.S. history, when a ship of Jewish refugees fleeing the Third Reich was turned away from Florida in 1939” — and there are of course security questions.

What’s perhaps most frightening is that there are no easy answers.

But they are even more difficult to find when national and state leaders are more interested in fear and flagging poll numbers than they are in providing fact-based leadership.