The U.S. Senate’s Constitutional role when it comes to the President’s cabinet is to “advise and consent”. In the case of Sen Rand Paul of Kentucky, “advise and consent” became the art of being for something before against ala another former senator, John Kerry.
I agree with Ross Douthat that Rand Paul trying to meet the “base” halfway with calls for realism and non-interventionism in U.S. foreign policy and for the Republican Party. But here’s the problem: Other people who are just as ambitious as he is and represent powerful intra-party factions will do anything in their power to try and halt those ambitions, and his John Kerry-like conduct over the Hagel nomination simply gives them the ammunition they need to shoot at him. Being “middle-of-the-road” only caused him to be hit by traffic on both sides of the street.
What Rand never understood was the symbolic struggle for power behind the Hagel nomination and what it said about the Bush II foreign policy legacy within the Republican Party. Hagel is certainly no Bob Taft, everyone knows this. But the fact the neocons were willing to make this their Waterloo made the nomination battle the perfect forum to criticize their ideology and take advantage of their defeat. Instead of that, Rand joined filibustering of a Presidential cabinet choice for the most demagogic reasons and in failing to stop him (which he was doing by being a part of the filibuster), basically said “Okay Mr. President you can have your Secretary of Defense who I voted twice to make sure he never would become Secretary of Defense. Here’s my stamp of approval.”
This was the time to take a stand against the neocons and instead Rand acted silly. Hopefully the episode will be long forgotten by 2015/16 but I’m sure Rand’s ideological opponents will make sure it won’t be. That would have been true either way but at least had Rand acted more intelligently, they’re attacks would be no more devastating than pin-pricks. Now they may have a little more weight behind them. Douthat may be right in that the “base” doesn’t really have foreign policy positions compared to sympathies but they’re a lot less likely to understand why a person was opposed to something before he decided to support it.