Rand Paul for President: Can Interesting Be Electable?

Rand Paul's electoral virtues might be the same as his vices.


Rand Paul
Rand Paul

Rand Paul announced today that he's definitely running for re-election to his Kentucky Senate seat. While he has not made it official, he's also by all available evidence running for his party's presidential nomination (even though under Kentucky law he can't appear on the same ballot in that state for both offices).

He's doing well in the polls so far. In RealClearPolitics' combined polls Paul is tied for second among prospective Republican candidates, along with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. Paul is even number one in New Hampshire, often a useful place to be number one. Jeb Bush, horrifically, is ahead of them all nationally by 1.8 percentage points. (For now, all of them are being smashed by Hillary Clinton, with whom Paul is already in open battle.)

Paul has a quality that doubtless irks his possible opponents even as they anticipate it will provide them the weapon with which to dispatch the troublesome constitutionalist. As publications from Reason (first!) to Time have noticed, he's a serious national politician, not merely an amusing/alarming maverick and as such Rand Paul is the most interesting guy in the field. This peculiar character says and does things fresh and dramatic in politics, within the context of his party, the context of presidential politics writ large—on both levels he advocates things no one else will—and the context of his own political and familial saga—where he can be examined constantly for flip flops, apostasy, and the struggle to escape his father Ron Paul's allegedly baleful (electorally) shadow.

What other presidential candidate with serious prospects has ever said he would "do everything to end the war on drugs," a position Paul has come to gingerly but finally arrived at? Who else would react to Ferguson not by avoiding the topic (most of them), or offering mealy-mouthed evocations of the "decent and respectful law enforcement officers" as Hillary did, but by blaming systemic issues of government preying on the poor with petty law enforcement and fines and the racial disparities in an unjust war on drugs? Especially since the specifics of the Michael Brown shooting weren't really related to either of those things. Paul saw a teachable moment to go off-reservation for not only his party but American politics writ large, and he took it.

He's the Republican with a realistic chance of winning the love of the big-money of Silicon Valley with his general aura of "entrepreneurial change agent" (and specifically being anti-regulation and anti-tax). He's even intending to open a campaign office in San Francisco shortly. At the same time he sticks to his anti-regulatory principles and stands against Net Neutrality even though most of the tech industry he's trying to woo is for it. Something larger is going on with this guy than just kowtowing to select constituencies, and it's attractive, even in how inscrutably Rand Paul can read in standard political terms.

Watching Paul walk through the political dramas and traps created by his own strongly, and unusually, held positions is great for reams of ink, a lot of it respectful and fascinated. He comes across as prickly, yes, but brave, and striving for big things, with all eyes eagerly on him waiting for a stumble—but on him nevertheless. It's great political drama for friend and foe and ensures his fresh message will gush through earned media.

Being interesting has its pitfalls as well. If Paul can't shake the impression that his interestingness is tantamount to being unelectable, it could hurt—but it seems likely from the money and the polls and the media that he's already crashed that barrier. It takes a die-hard fading influence like Bill Kristol to seriously insist that Rand will under-perform compared to Ron Paul in a presidential race. If Paul succeeds, he'll be the re-brander he insists his party needs; if he fails, he'll just be one more cult star who failed to break the mainstream.

So far he's making all the right moves and establishing his star power, as the leading utility player for fellow Republicans campaigning in 2014. Scott Reed, former 1996 Bob Dole presidential campaign leader and now the Chamber of Commerce's senior political strategist, told Politico that "In any two-week period of this last six months, Rand Paul did more smart things to grow the party than everyone else combined." Rand Paul is no outsider in his own party. His RAND PAC supported at least four new GOP senators-elect.

As Paul rolls out a prospective campaign team of workers and advisors heavier on GOP pros than Ron Paul Machiners, he earns Strange New Respect for seeming like a "serious candidate, out to win" and able to fund-raise, both in official campaign funds and potential SuperPacs, in the big leagues (while his new choice of allies gets some of his father's loyalists to declare Paul has obviously sold out to the Council on Foreign Relations and the internationalists trying to steal our sovereignty through trade agreements).

Rand Paul has got a digital guru, Vincent Harris, who has worked for Mitch McConnell, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and Rick Perry. He's got a national political director of his RAND PAC, John Yob, who used to work for John McCain, and Mike Biundo, a Rick Santorum vet, running his New Hampshire operation. He's got former Bush bundler and entrepreneur of the "uber of trashNate Morris as his new BFF and guide to the real big Republican money, outside Ron Paul World (which itself was good for around $40 million in official campaign funds in 2012.)

Foreign policy, conventional wisdom has it, will be Paul's hardest sell with the GOP. His announced foreign policy advisor, unofficial and unpaid so far, who seems most willing to talk to the press is Lorne Craner, a former McCain associate and longtime head of the International Republican Institute, one of those do-gooder democratizing foreign aid groups that Ron Paul and many of his fans strongly disdain and distrust. Craner seems to be playing the role of serious older brother to that wing of the GOP establishment, showing that young Randy can actually be pretty cool and even responsible beyond his years, if you get to know him.

If one believed Rand Paul was going to become a mouthpiece for advisor Craner's beliefs, Paul would lose almost everything libertarians and fans of his dad could have admired about his foreign policy. Craner recently tweeted that it was "encouraging" that a Pew poll showed the number of Americans feeling threatened by everything everywhere was rising, and that the numbers who wanted overseas activism were rising (though, thank goodness—and pay attention Rand!—the  percentage who think we do too much overseas still trumped those who thought we do too little, 39 to 31).

Elise Jordan, another foreign policy advisor, copped on MSNBC to having worked on Paul's lauded October foreign policy speech. Jordan (the widow of controversial and tough-on-the-Pentagon journalist Michael Hastings who died in a car wreck in Los Angeles last year) was respectful toward Ron Paul in the pages of National Review all the way back in 2011. While she was careful not to openly say on MSNBC that Rand's big speech advocated a general non-interventionism, she at least didn't spin it as being about getting tough against all the myriad horrible threats the U.S. is supposedly beset with.

As evidenced in Matt Welch's probing interview on foreign policy with Paul after that speech, Paul refuses to be backed into any standard corner of the foreign policy spectrum. However, in trying to sound potentially reasonable to everyone, he runs the risk of giving everyone a reason not to vote for him.

Paul can, as he did in the interview with Welch, play to the GOP base by slamming Hillary over Benghazi, and then suggest we get involved in making a peace of sorts with Turks and Kurds (the U.S. having such a sterling record in settling long-simmering ethnic, religious, or sectarian conflict in the Middle East).

"I think the vast majority of people are not for sending 50,000 troops back into Iraq at this point. But the vast majority is also for standing up and saying to barbarians that we're not going to let you behead our citizens," he said, which sounds reasonable. Yet it is at the same time unsatisfying to most voters with strong opinions about either the American destiny to pacify and democratize the globe—in which you use as many troops as it takes—or those who realize that sometimes a large scale military response to even a few murders of American citizens is unwise and unnecessary.

The problem Paul could face with claiming a unique, nuanced space and thus potentially losing all sides applies beyond foreign policy. For example, his bold declaration that the current GOP brand "sucks" may help in outreach to independents. At the same time, it's going to be a tough soundbite to evade when his primary opponents' SuperPACS throw it out in ads to rile up a GOP base who might already have reason to see Paul as culturally not one of them—isn't that the guy who met with Al Sharpton? And wants to legalize drugs? And wants to hobble our brave intelligence agencies keeping us safe from omnipresent Islamic terror?

When it comes to his desire to be the Republican who reclaims Silicon Valley from the Democrats, Paul has annoyed some people who loved him for his loud anti-surveillance stance when he voted against allowing the USA FREEDOM Act to proceed in the Senate. That bill was perceived by most as at the very least a needed first step in reining in NSA surveillance power. Paul thought it didn't go far enough, and besides included a reauthorization of some Patriot Act provisions he could not in good conscience vote for.

Paul's move on USA FREEDOM could be seen as an ideologue letting the best be the enemy of the good and thus becoming merely obstructionist, or even indicating that he's insincere about actually waging a real political fight over change in NSA practices. His fans, and doubtless Paul himself, see it as a proving that when it comes to truly vital matters like the Fourth Amendment, he's not going to just vote for what he sees as fig leaves over a huge problem, even if it might score him political points for seeming to have "done something."

Similarly, when it comes to war on ISIS, it's nice that Paul has been bold on congressional prerogatives and condemned Obama's war as illegal. That sort of talk seems alarmingly peacenik to those who believe an Imperial President is all that keeps us from a dozen 9/11s. But he's also proposed a congressional authorization for war on ISIS that leaves non-interventionists worried that his standards for boots on the ground are alarmingly thin. It's one thing to be strong on constitutional process for war-waging, but perhaps more important to be strong on content.

It seems impossible to believe that a Paul who wins the Republican nomination wouldn't alienate a fair number of otherwise reliable Republicans who would either stay at home (most likely) or even go for a sufficiently hawkish Hillary Clinton come November. Which means that the anti-surveillance, anti-police state, anti-drug war, possibly anti-intervention Paul will have to shave off votes from a left-of-center base assumed to generally go Democrat. This might be possible for some. But cultural divides related to Paul's stances on spending, taxes on the rich, welfare, global warming and abortion will likely make it hard for many people who agree with him on those earlier antis to actually pull the lever for a Republican.

Republicans and Democrats will both be vexed in different degrees for different reasons by the unusual spectacle of a Paul close to the presidency. But what of the serious libertarian's stance toward Paul? Why, he or she should do whatever they want about Rand Paul. That's what freedom's all about, man.

But libertarians might want to consider getting over the team superego annoyances of seeing a guy who you either want to identify with—he's so good on so much!—or who others identify you with—isn't Rand Paul the "libertarian Republican?"—disappoint you for not being you. If libertarians just contemplate what he might accomplish, either actually in office or in normalizing his general attitude toward governance in his party, it might be easier to shout "Rah Rah Rand!"

Might a nominated Paul get drubbed so severely in November 2016 for being so outré on government size and scope that a Goldwater dilemma arises—the sudden and severe repudiation of his approach by the Party next time around? Maybe. Then let them go back to the likes of a Romney or God forbid a Santorum and see where it gets them. The game of political and social change is a long one. Even a defeated Rand Paul will, by his very running, shape the ideology and politics of the next generation in big and very likely positive ways.

But better for the libertarian that Rand Paul fail, if fail he must, by going big and bold in the areas where he's distinct from all his rivals, Republican and Democrat.