Paul's Cuba split fuels GOP skepticism
© Greg Nash

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulRand Paul’s Russia visit displays advancement of peace through diplomacy Rand Paul takes victory lap after Brennan's security clearance revoked Trump revokes Brennan's security clearance MORE (R-Ky.) again finds himself at odds with many in the GOP on foreign policy, after he came out in support of the Obama administration’s move to normalize relations with Cuba. 

“It’s not surprising,” one Republican strategist told The Hill. “Once again he has found a way to be even more liberal than Obama on foreign policy. That’s hard to do because there’s only about a dime’s room of space between the two of them, but he always find a way to get into it.” 

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By fueling his isolationist image, Paul has set himself up for what will likely be a bruising battle on international issues with other GOP contenders in the primaries if he chooses to run for president.

“The road to hell is paved with isolationist intentions,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida Republican strategist. “He was already viewed with suspicion, not just by the donor class, but by the part of the party that believes in strong national security and promoting American values abroad, and now he’s behind throwing a lifeline to a communist dictator.” 

A Paul spokesman hit back that the senator's position was intended to open relations with countries, and his detractors had political motivations. 

“Isolationism is cutting off trade with a country and not engaging in diplomacy and trade. Ending the embargo is the opposite of isolationism. Seems like some of the for-hire political class are already competing for jobs," said Brian Darling, a Paul spokesman. 

There was near unanimity among Republicans who lined up against Obama on Cuba, and other likely challengers, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), all criticized the president and said they continue to support the embargo.

Several Republican strategists say Paul is positioning himself to fight a battle over foreign policy that he can’t win in the Republican primaries if he runs for president.

“This is going to set him back with early [Republican] primary voters who believe in muscular foreign policy,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “It’s a systematic Rand Paul problem, and it’s what happens when he tries to morph his libertarian ideas into conservative philosophy.”

On Thursday, Paul announced his support for the Obama administration’s move to normalize relations with Cuba and seemed to go even further, saying the U.S. embargo against the country, which will stay in place for the time being, is bad policy.

"The 50-year embargo just hasn't worked," Paul said. "If the goal is regime change, it sure doesn't seem to be working, and probably it punishes the people more than the regime because the regime can blame the embargo for hardship." 

Paul’s comments came a full day after Florida lawmakers and many in the Republican Party quickly expressed fury at President Obama’s actions.

Rubio seized the spotlight on Wednesday. The potential 2016 candidate was up and down the radio and TV dials excoriating the president as the “single-worst negotiator we’ve had in the White House” and vowing to use his expected chairmanship on a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee to fight the policy move.

Bush, who announced this week he was actively exploring a bid for the White House, accused the Obama administration of rewarding dictators. And Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), another likely GOP contender, accused Obama of legitimizing the Castro regime in Cuba and of throwing it a "badly-needed economic lifeline.”

Paul also ran afoul of his longtime foreign policy nemeses in the GOP, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who together said Obama’s “appeasement of autocratic dictators, thugs, and adversaries” has diminished “America’s influence in the world.”

The McCain-Graham statement is in line with how conservatives view Obama’s foreign policy more generally, and that’s not company any Republican wants to keep.

By siding with the president on Cuba and espousing a more isolationist view of foreign policy informed by his libertarian streak, Paul remains deeply entrenched against many in his own party on a matter that they don’t speak softly about.

“One of conservatives’ greatest frustrations with this president is that he’s hollowed out our status abroad,” the GOP strategist said. “Conservatives want a Republican president who will restore America’s strength and leadership abroad. This is just another instance where it looks like [Paul] is with President Obama.”

Several GOP strategists told The Hill they were miffed that Paul didn’t at least take the opportunity of bashing Obama for getting a raw deal from the Castro regime in Cuba. They also said Paul's stance will fit neatly into the existing narrative some in the Republican party have that his views fall outside the mainstream of the party’s more hawkish tendencies. 

“He’s running the risk of pigeonholing himself the way his dad was pigeonholed, at least on foreign policy,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. “If you believe that the Obama foreign policy has been a disaster, which 95 percent of Republicans believe, then I don’t know how you approach this the way he’s approaching it.” 

Defending his position on Cuba in the primaries could be especially tricky for Paul because the issue remains raw in the Sunshine State — and he might find himself going up against two native Floridians and a third opponent of Cuban descent on the matter. 

Rubio, in particular, showed Wednesday that foreign policy falls right into his wheelhouse, and he’s especially skilled at articulating why he and other South Floridians remain staunchly opposed to relations with the Castro regime. In addition, as the son of Cuban exiles, the message is personal to him. 

“Rubio and Cruz both have parents who are Cuban immigrants, and I don’t think either will appreciate getting lectured by Paul about that,” Mackowiak said.

Wilson said that if Paul makes it that far in the primaries, he’d run into one wall of Cuban-Americans in Florida who will look at the deal as the U.S. having given up all of its leverage while allowing the Castro regime to go on unabated. He also said Paul would suffer a backlash from the base of conservative foreign policy voters and military retirees in the state.

In 2016, the Florida primary will be in March — early enough in the cycle that it will  likely play a role in determining the party’s nominee. 

Still, if Paul can isolate the Cuban issue as separate from his foreign policy views more broadly, he might find he’s on the right side of public opinion in some states. Two polls released this year show a broad shift among Cuban-Americans in Florida and Americans nationally in favor of diplomatic relations with Cuba.

But his path to the nomination might have become more difficult. 

“The Republican Party is a conservative party and will nominate a conservative candidate for president,” a GOP strategist said. “To be a conservative, you have to be conservative on foreign policy and all of the issues.”

 — This post was updated at 10 a.m.