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Rand Paul's disastrous ISIS debate answer shows why his campaign is floundering

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Tonight, Rand Paul was asked, straight-up, to defend a core part of his non-interventionist approach to foreign policy — arguably his signature reason for running. He punted. And in the process, he illustrated why his campaign is doing so badly.

Update: Coverage of the second GOP debate.

Paul was asked to defend comments blaming the rise of ISIS on "GOP hawks," on the grounds that American interventions abroad had helped get arms into the hands of extremists. Paul demurred, saying that "only ISIS" is responsible for its violence.

The problem here is that Paul's libertarian base — the kind of people who love his father, former Rep. Ron Paul — want him to attack Republican hawks. They like Rand because he's willing to forthrightly and openly attack George W. Bush–style neoconservatism, to say that America's history of foreign wars might be a mistake. And, at times, Paul has been willing to say that stuff.

"ISIS exists and grew stronger because of the hawks in our party," he said in May. "Everything [the hawks have] talked about in foreign policy, they've been wrong about for 20 years but they have somehow the gall to keep pointing fingers and saying otherwise."

But recently, that kind of comment has been the exception. Since he launched his presidential campaign, he's soft-peddled his views. He's lined up more with the party, tacking hawkish on issues like Iran. And it looks like he's alienated his core audience. Republicans who want a traditional Republican will vote for a traditional Republican. Rand Paul's fans wanted someone who would force the Republican Party to change — but Paul isn't doing it.

When Paul turned to actually talking about ISIS, his answer was essentially nonsense. "I'm the leading voice in America for not arming the allies of ISIS," Paul said, as if that were a policy that anyone was proposing. "Hillary Clinton ... wanted to send arms to the allies of ISIS."

Presumably, what he means is that she's willing to arm the Syrian rebels, a policy she proposed as secretary of state. But that's a basic misreading of the Syrian civil war: The rebels, including al-Qaeda, are ISIS's enemies. The reason "ISIS rides around in US Humvees," as Paul put it, is that ISIS overran Iraqi bases belonging to US allies — not because the United States has been supporting fighters aligned with ISIS.

This is a basic, basic mistake. But even if his answer made sense, it still has a non-interventionist implication: America shouldn't be sending weapons abroad to fight ISIS. That's going to piss off most Republicans as well as key GOP donors, who support more aggressive measures about ISIS. No one in the party will like that answer.

Paul's trying to thread a delicate needle: keep his libertarian base while expanding his reach to more typical Republicans. This kind of answer shows how he's failing at both ends.