As he launches his presidential candidacy, Rand Paul is deploying a slightly used, slightly modified slogan, calling himself “a different kind of Republican.” But that’s where comparisons to Bill Clinton’s 1992 pitch largely end.
Yes, Paul is arguing he can expand the GOP “base” into hostile territory. But his formula isn’t Clintonian moderation. Like most movement conservatives, Paul shares the conviction that the Republican Party lost its way after 1964—or maybe 1952, or 1932, or 1904; expert opinions differ—by abandoning its vision of an eternally fixed central government and instead trying to promote what Barry Goldwater mocked as a “dime store New Deal.” But while fellow “constitutional conservatives” like Ted Cruz imagine a winning coalition composed of GOP “base” voters psyched out of their skulls along with nonvoters who have been secretly pining for a rightwing savior, Paul’s electability argument is that his eccentric path back to the policies of the distant past will attract key elements of the other party’s base.
Put simply, Paul offers limited-government conservatives an interesting bargain: They can take America right back to the economic and social policies of the Coolidge Administration—if they give up spying on, imprisoning and sending off to war young people and minorities.
The problem, of course, is that the attractiveness of this bargain depends on how much of the spying, imprisoning and warmaking agenda Republicans are willing to give up for electoral victory, and also their assessments of Paul’s credibility as a vote magnet for young and minority voters. So potentially the candidate himself is caught in a negative dialectic wherein accommodations of conventional conservatives reduce his attractiveness to those outside the Cause. And that in turn reduces the “electability” advantage which makes him attractive to those who might otherwise prefer the uncompromising Ted Cruz or Scott Walker.
It is entirely unclear whether Paul can thread this particular needle.
He’s gotten lucky with conservatives on some issues. As long as Barack Obama is president, the same people who cheered George W. Bush’s spying and torturing and usurping of congressional prerogatives have no real argument with Paul on those subjects.
And Paul may have been too prescient for his own good when it comes to another issue that’s traditionally hurt Republicans: criminal justice reform. Now the Kentuckian barely stands out among Republicans on this issue. And that’s a problem. If you take away a special positioning on incarceration rates and drug-law injustices, all that’s left of Paul’s famous outreach to African-Americans is the dubious “plantation” argument that African-Americans have sold their votes to Democrats in exchange for a soul-destroying dependence on Big Government. I don’t think it will take too long even for the mainstream media to figure that out and stop acting as though Paul’s on the brink of winning 40 percent of the black vote.
Meanwhile, Paul’s efforts to eliminate his father’s disqualifying identification as an “isolationist” have gotten more difficult as the international climate has changed and most conservatives have regained their zest for multiple Middle Eastern wars. It was one thing for Rand to deftly convert his “no aid for Israel” posture into “no aid for anybody someday but for now plenty of aid for Israel!” This is, after all, the standard “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet!” gambit conservatives pull anytime they want to justify a special interest pander.
But now the CW and the public opinion climate among conservatives are demanding that all Republicans more or less support a re-invasion of Iraq, a bellicose posture towards Iran, a blank check for Bibi Netanyahu, and more defense spending. So far Paul is hanging in there, though one can only imagine what Ron Paul thought of his son signing onto Tom Cotton’s letter to Tehran. But the once-fashionable idea that young voters might flock to a Paul-led GOP as the “peace party” in contrast to the “hawkish” Democrats led by Hillary Clinton is becoming increasingly laughable.
The pressure on Paul to emphasize his similarities to, rather than his differences from, other conservatives is only going to grow more intense once he is spending half his time courting “base” voters in Pizza Ranches across Iowa and Baptist fellowship halls across South Carolina. The primary season will also shed renewed light on positions that make Ted Cruz look moderate. The hipster veneer of Paul ‘16 will certainly be eroded when voters are reminded of decidedly 19th-century Paul Family thinking on monetary policy, international organizations and reproductive rights.
All in all, the odds are good that Rand Paul’s candidacy will come to represent less a “big tent” where traditional conservatives happily mingle with entirely new constituencies than what Ron Paul’s campaigns ultimately became: people handing out tracts on the margins of the same old crowd of elderly white folks, and maybe drifting off to smoke dope under the rafters and dream of revolutions.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.