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An overlooked Republican debate highlight: when Rand Paul almost lost it

Paul, taking the counterintuitive position that we should avoid WWIII.
Paul, taking the counterintuitive position that we should avoid WWIII.
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Rand Paul's presence at the fifth Republican debate was a curiosity. Technically, he shouldn't have been on the main stage at all; he squeaked in due to a last-minute poll from (ahem) Fox News. His support has been in the low single digits for months, media coverage is nonexistent, and he is virtually never mentioned as a possible winner or vice presidential candidate. He has become one of the campaign's forgotten men.

Making it to the main stage might be seen as a golden opportunity, but if Paul saw it that way, he showed no outward sign. His affect was flat, sour, and dutiful.

Why is that? Part of it was just Paul being Paul. (He's not very good at faking it.) But part of it was surely related to the focus of the debate — foreign and domestic security policy, subjects on which his libertarian instincts place him out of step with the rampaging, terrified id of his party.

He clearly knows that, and delivered what were effectively protest answers with grim efficiency. But at one point, it all seemed to get to him, and he almost broke character. He almost had a Howard Beale moment and pulled the rug out from under the whole bloody farce.

In the end, he stopped short and reined himself in. But it was close enough to provide what was, for me, one of the sleeper highlights of the debate.

A sober man in a bar full of belligerent drunks

It was not a good night for those who, like Paul, doubt that every foreign policy problem can be solved with sufficient application of macho posturing and martial rhetoric.

From the beginning, the debate was an escalating series of alpha-dog displays, with casual talk of arming various groups, carpet bombing, killing the family members of terrorists, shutting down parts of the internet, and surveilling every conceivable form of communication.

dr. strangelove
Last night's GOP debate, held in the War Room.

Any vestigial attachment to civil liberties, or sobriety regarding America's ability to bend the world to its will, was quickly jettisoned amid the one-upmanship. Any time discussion strayed too close to the real world of governance — specific legislation, diplomatic difficulties, the differences between various Middle Eastern countries and organizations — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would thunder in with the equivalent of, "The American people don't care about these fancy words, they just want to kill, kill, kill the bad guys!" And so the band converged on one repeated note: America will win. It will destroy ISIS. You won't need to feel afraid anymore.

Watching this unfold, occasionally inserting a futile objection, Paul grew increasingly disgusted. The spectacle reached an early crescendo (one of many) with Christie, who has recently gained momentum in New Hampshire, proudly boasting that he would shoot down Russian warplanes — and look Putin in the eye while he did it.

Just for a moment, it seemed that Paul was fed up. He exclaimed:

If you are in favor of World War III, you have your candidate! Here's the thing...

And then he paused, and couldn't quite get over it:

My goodness, what we want in a leader is someone with judgment, not someone so reckless as to stand on the stage saying, yes, I'm going to shoot down Russian planes.

For the first time all night, he was animated. Just for a moment, I thought he might break the fourth wall, the odd bubble that surrounds the GOP's surreal dialogue on foreign policy. I thought he was going to look directly at the camera and say, "My God, look at this. We're talking about running the most powerful country in the world and these maniacs think it's a dick-measuring contest. Get me out of here!"

But ... he didn't. He dragged himself back to the issue at hand:

Russia flies in that air space. [We] may or may not be in love with the fact that they are there. But they were [permitted] by Iraq and Syria to fly in that air space. If we announce a no-fly zone, it's a recipe for disaster and World War III. We need to confront Russia from a position of strength, but not from a point of recklessness that would lead to war. This is something...

And then you could practically hear him switch gears. The righteous outrage drained, the politician returned, and he remembered, "Oh, yeah, I'm here to shiv Chris Christie."

This type of judgment is ... having that kind of judgment ... who you would appoint and conduct affairs, that is important. When we think about the judgment of someone who might want World War III, we might think about someone who would shut down a bridge because they don't like their friends. I think we need to be very careful about that.

Shiv, delivered.

And so the night went on without further incident, full of vows to launch as many wars, profile as many Muslims, and surveil as many communications as necessary to Keep America Safe.

Here it is: