Yesterday, Rand Paul announced his bid for the White House in 2016. With a full editorial disclosure, I am a Rand Paul supporter and I assume that I will eventually write an official endorsement for his White House bid. My own bias established, I still contend that Rand Paul is a necessary breath of fresh air in the Republican Party (despite his insistence on wearing button-down collars while wearing ties).
There are a few things that people need to be clear about Senator Paul at the outset. The first, and most often cited, is that Rand Paul is not his father. I covered that topic at length before, and the news media has repeated and analyzed the issue ad nauseam. However, there’s an angle to the story that’s not often covered: the ability to project your politics onto a candidate.
Barack Obama in 2008 was one of the best “blank slate” candidates in recent memory. With virtually no experience at a national level, Senator Obama had a gift for speaking in intentional vagueries and people could write their own “hopes” onto his message. Congressman Ron Paul was very similar. Ron Paul was he definition of a “big tent” type of candidate. He appealed to young people, conspiracy theorists, minorities, disaffected liberals, hard-line small-government conservatives, and even members of the military (remember the famous line that the biggest donors to Mitt Romney and Barack Obama were bankers but the biggest donors to Ron Paul came from the US Armed Forces). Ron Paul was “kooky,” but he was your kind of kooky. He never shut down ideas or shut out points of view. This obviously got him lumped in with some really off-the-wall people.
There are two problems with the media calculations with respect to Senator Paul. The first is that the majority of Ron Paul’s support was that fickle fringe who won’t support the less-ideologically-pure-libertarian Rand. The second is that Rand’s first fight is against Senator Ted Cruz for the heart and soul of the Tea Party. Both of these analyses miss their marks.
With regard to the first, Senator Paul will likely retain over 75% or more of his father’s supporters. The ones that he loses are most likely the racialists and the conspiracy theorists. He may also lose some support among the absolutely intransigent doves: “we just marched in, we can just march home” responders to foreign wars. Rand Paul understands that there are nuances to American foreign policy that prevent immediate irrevocable abandonment of initiatives around the globe. Especially given the cold reception to even the hint of dovishness, the younger Paul must walk the fine line between advocating sensibility and being perceived as someone who will open the gates to the barbarians. While it’s likely that Senator Paul’s personal beliefs likely lie closer to his father’s on foreign policy, he must present a nuanced perspective if he wants to have a chance in fundraising and early primaries.
The reason why foreign policy won’t hurt Senator Paul is because there is no other viable candidate in the Republican Primary (or even in the likely general election) who will be advocating the libertarian message regarding American power abroad. Hillary Clinton will likely run on a hawkish message that will be nearly indistinguishable from the other top-flight GOP candidates.
When former Ron Paul supporters survey the race, they will undoubtedly come to the conclusion that supporting Rand is not a “lesser of two evils” analysis. Rather, though Senator Paul’s perspective is less aggressive than his father’s, there is no one else advocating a course correction. Therefore, when it comes down to voting, Rand Paul will be the candidate for the vast majority of Ron Paul’s supporters.
Some have referred to this as Rand Paul’s “floor.” That is, he inherits the majority of his father’s supporters. If that number starts strong, he will be able to build on that solid 5-20%. However, this raises the specter of the second concern raised by the media: the ceiling for Senator Paul.
Some have eagerly portrayed Rand Paul’s first challenge as Senator Ted Cruz. This is an obvious and easy story. The two are the only ones currently in the race, and they both came into office on the Tea Party wave in 2010. Both had marathon filibusters and both appeal to small-government conservatives. However, that’s about where the similarities between the two men end.
Senator Cruz made the calculation that he would try to establish a floor like Senator Paul’s. Cruz’s floor, however, is built on the support of evangelicals and religious conservatives. Stealing the presumptive thunder out of the campaigns of Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum, Cruz seeks to define himself early as inheriting the mantle of the “Tea Party” candidate. Rand Paul will likely let him have it.
While Rand Paul is more alluring to Christian fundamentalists than his father, Paul has never presented himself as a hardcore Zionist or a crusader (in the 12th century context). Moreover, Paul’s perceived progressive views towards homosexuality in recreational drugs effectively cut off any large amount of evangelical support. Paul should happily watch those folks head to Ted Cruz. Like the conspiracy theorists who dogged his father, the evangelicals and hawkish radicals that are flocking to Cruz will effectively define his candidacy. This is where talk of ceilings comes into play.
Rand Paul, free of needing to pander too far into the right, can embrace a more moderate position while still keeping the libertarian branding. His attacks on dynasties and the establishment wing of the Republican Party will be more effective at peeling off moderate support than the support any foray into the right wing would bring him.
Paul knows this. His alliance with Mitch McConnell, though it made many libertarians cringe, is the correct move to solicit big-money donors and support. With a solid finish in Iowa, Paul’s real moment comes in seeing if he can take the top spot in New Hampshire. It looks basically decided that Paul will not win South Carolina, but a divided conservative wing and a divided establishment may make Paul look like an excellent compromise for many voters.
So, here’s how it looks like in a breakdown: Ted Cruz’s biggest rival at the start is Scott Walker and Rand Paul’s is Jeb Bush. At the outset, of course Cruz and Paul have to spar. They’re the only two officially in the game. However, once the wheels of the campaign begin to turn, and the big money starts to flow, it will become clear that Bush will need moderate support to keep his candidacy afloat in order to get into the South. Especially if other establishment candidates jump into the race (e.g. John Kasich or even Mike Pence), Bush will need to bring in moderate Republicans with talk of small government policies. This is the ideal scenario for Rand Paul. In the event he hasn’t made the leap to try to solicit Cruz supporters, Paul can cement his status at the top tier by steady finishes and rolling up moderates who are disaffected with the establishment and turned off by the rabid evangelicals on the hard right.
Paul also needs to hope that Walker is dogged by a resilient Cruz campaign. It already looks like Cruz, who has had an enormous boom in fundraising following his announcement, will remain in the race for a long time. If Cruz can keep a hold on the “Obama voters from the right” (the ones who are ascribing their views onto his blank slate), Scott Walker’s overall effectiveness as a candidate will diminish. This, in turn, helps Senator Paul in Iowa, where Walker is a likely favorite. Especially if Cruz can draw away enough support, Paul, Bush, and Walker could possibly finish within a few percentage points of one another and be clearly established as the top-three candidates.
Senator Paul’s difficulty arises from his Kentucky race for Senate. While the Republican Party in Kentucky has officially moved back the date for deciding who they will put forward as a candidate for Senate, it still remains a difficult issue. Even if Rand Paul is successful in his bid to change Kentucky law and stand for both the Senate and the Presidency, there is no guarantee that he will retain his Senate seat. Moreover, if Paul gets a spot on the official GOP ticket, the person who will have to run for the vacated Senate seat will have an uphill race. With the Republican majority in the Senate on extremely thin ice in 2016, Paul may opt not to stay in the run for the White House if early primaries are disappointing.
Rand Paul’s brand of conservative libertarianism with individual privacy and liberty messages resonates with the voters the Republican Party will need to woo in order to stay relevant in the coming decades. While the Party establishment may not always seem to have foresight on these sorts of issues, the people who are in charge understand the demographic shifts on issues. While Party insiders were unable to embrace the radical departures from the Party line envisioned by Ron Paul, the course corrections proposed by his son are more palatable and could lead to significant payoffs for the Party in the years to come.
It does not seem likely at this point that Rand Paul will win on his first bid for the White House. Certainly stranger things have happened in the course of America’s political history. However, Rand Paul is only 52 years old. He will be a viable Presidential candidate for many elections to come. While I support his campaign for President and his message, it will certainly be an uphill battle to get the nomination and then to beat the Democrat machine. I certainly think Americans would benefit from smaller government, responsible spending, a reduction in superfluous militarism abroad, increased civil rights at home, and a proactive foreign policy.
Ron Paul brought the libertarian movement into the world, and Rand Paul will endeavor to open its eyes.