Politics is show business with consequences. The theatricality which presents around political contests often exaggerates differences in policy. The recent back and forth between Texas governor Rick Perry and U.S. senator Rand Paul, both of whom appear likely to seek their party’s nomination for president in 2016, provides a good example.

Delivering the opening salvo in Friday’s Washington Post, Perry accuses Paul of being an “isolationist” who prescribes “next to nothing” in response to the developing threat posed by the Islamic State marching in Syria and Iraq. Yet, when the rhetorical smoke clears, Perry’s prescription differs little from what Paul has called for. The Kentucky senator highlights as much in his response published Monday at Politico:

Perry says there are no good options. I’ve said the same thing. President Obama has said the same thing. So what are Perry’s solutions and why does he think they are so bold and different from anyone else’s?

He writes in the Washington Post, “the president can and must do more with our military and intelligence communities to help cripple the Islamic State. Meaningful assistance can include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sharing and airstrikes.”

The United States is actually doing all of this now. President Obama has said he might use airstrikes in the future. I have also been open to the same option if it makes sense.

If the governor continues to insist that these proposals mean I’m somehow “ignoring ISIS,” I’ll make it my personal policy to ignore Rick Perry’s opinions.

Paul gives as good as he gets, attempting to portray himself as stronger, wiser, and more Reaganesque. But this too is more showmanship than substance.

In truth, the differences between Perry and Paul manifest more in rhetorical spin than actual policy. Perry has an interest in portraying Paul as an “isolationist” who will do nothing in the face of an imminent threat to American lives, even though Paul has said nothing of the sort. Likewise, Paul has an interest in portraying Perry as a rabid warmonger chomping at the bit to toss American lives into a foreign meat grinder, even though Perry has not prescribed troop deployment in response to the current crisis.

There are real differences between these two, and real differences along the spectrum of foreign policy positions in the Republican Party. However, we should remain mindful of the interest likely candidates have in exaggerating those differences to build momentum for their campaigns. In truth, we need not choose between reckless war and naïve isolation. Our real choices are much less neat.

(Today’s Fightin Words podcast is on this topic available here. 11:19 minutes long; 10.87 MB file size. Right click here to download this show to your hard drive. Subscribe through iTunes or RSS feed.)