Job one for Sen. Rand Paul in his new role as Republican presidential aspirant is to somehow distinguish himself from ideological doppelganger Sen. Ted Cruz and kneecap his rival for the GOP nod. Or so say some media outlets that may be driven as much by an appreciation for good political bloodsport as by a touch of political insularity.
According to Bloomberg's David Knowles, "Both seen as conservatives just outside the mainstream of the party, Paul and Cruz will compete for support from the same voter demographic during the GOP primary, meaning that only one of these men will likely have a realistic shot at challenging establishment candidates like Jeb Bush."
Fox News/Associated Press agree that "Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul both tapped into the powerful Tea Party movement, fueled by frustration with big government and overspending, to win their seats in Congress. Now, the two freshman senators find themselves competing directly for that same constituency as they seek the party nomination in the 2016 presidential race."
They're "two peas in the tea party pod," chimes in the Christian Science Monitor's Francine Kiefer.
Yes, both Ted Cruz and Rand Paul rode Tea Party support to the United States Senate, and both can legitimately claim outsider status relative to both D.C. politics and the Republican establishment, but that doesn't make them clones of one another. Both are critical of large, expensive government. Ted Cruz famously invoked Milton Friedman upon winning the GOP senatorial nomination in 2012. Rand Paul is a second-generation libertarian who champions smaller government and free-market solutions at every turn.
But while that might make them twins in the eyes of East Coast journalists for whom the intrusive state occupies a place in nature as unquestionable as the moon in the sky, it ignores a host of issues on which the two disagree.
Reason's January profile of Cruz, by Glenn Garvin, noted the Texas senator's seemingly innate religiosity, and that he seems "bellicose on the subject of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and he has mocked Obama for not taking a tougher line over Russian intervention in the Ukraine." Cruz has been critical of NSA surveillance—and supportive of Paul's efforts against the same—though he shows a "clever propensity for framing the issues in a way that will appear to the religious right," as Garvin's profile put it.
Paul, by contrast, has courted the religious right amidst suspicions that he reached adult life without especially traditional religious beliefs to speak of, and possibly even a contempt for them. Originally known as a noninterventionist on foreign policy issues, the Kentucky senator now sounds a more hawkish note without actually winning over traditional GOP saber-rattlers who already oppose his presidential aspirations. His civil liberties efforts, including a 13-hour filibuster over drone strikes, show cross-party appeal and are core to his identity.
Of course, Cruz and Paul now have to appeal to broader constituencies in their parties (and maybe tick off their bases just a tad as they do so). But even as they shift, wriggle, and reposition in fine political tradition, they do so in distinct ways.
As Nick Gillespie noted last week, Sen. Ted Cruz's first post-announcement video was "Blessing" which steeped itself in more religiosity than has been seen since Blackadder's Puritan aunt came to dinner. That video features front and center on his campaign website right now, along with an emphasis on "courageous conservatives."
The four themes of Cruz's campaign at the moment are "Our Standard: The Constitution," "Stronger, Safer America," "Life, Marriage & Family," and "Jobs & Opportunity."
Cruz isn't wandering any distance at all from very familiar Republican ground—which may serve him well during the primary process, since it's GOP stalwarts who get to decide who carries the party's standard.
By contrast, Sen. Paul's announcement emphasized an outsider stance against "special interests" that use Washington as "their personal piggy bank" and the "Washington machine that gobbles up our freedoms and invades every nook and cranny of our lives." He promised criminal justice reform and an end to the NSA's domestic surveillance.
The pull-down menu of issues on his campaign website features (among other options) "Civil Liberties," a phrase not apparent on Cruz's site, and a modest-ish (in modern terms) "vow to explore all diplomatic options before sending our Armed Forces into battle."
In his campaign announcement, Paul freely criticized both Republicans and Democrats for creating the bloated and intrusive federal government. The Los Angeles Times's Seema Mehta noted that "Paul has burnished his image as an unusual candidate for his party, visiting inner cities and college campuses and talking about issues such as reducing penalties for drug use as he courts the young and minority voters. But to succeed Paul will have to shore up his appeal among the Republican base of older white voters."
While both Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are trying to win the presidential nomination of the Republican Party, one is trying to do so as a traditional conservative, and the other as a libertarian-ish conservative. Both will have to make compromises along the way as they reach out beyond the base that elected them to the Senate and has supported their causes as lawmakers—and Paul, at least has already disappointed some supporters who'd hoped to see a purer libertarian challenge to the status quo.
But the contest isn't between identical candidates at all; it's between outsider Republicans who are different in important ways. The question is which approach will be more successful in the modern Republican Party—and have a chance to test itself with the general electorate.