Is Rand Paul future for GOP?

Published 10:34 am Thursday, April 3, 2014

He’s the GOP’s emerging conservative “rock star” who sets the base on fire.

But can he go the distance? Is it realistic to think that Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul can really get the 2016 Republican Presidential nomination and usher in a new GOP era in more ways than one? Or does he have too much political hubris — some of it from his father?

If you believe a series of polls of Republicans and activists, he is indeed serious. At last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference he won its straw poll for the second time and electrified the membership. In Republican poll after poll he’s on top.

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The latest WPA Opinion Research poll has Paul and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at 13 percent, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at 11 percent.

Because of his positions on foreign issues, Paul’s chances are often pooh-poohed, but the GOP seems poised for a takeover and not-liberal makeover.

The Daily Beast’s Patricia Murphy called Paul “the de facto head of the libertarian wing of the party, still pushing the GOP to broaden its message and its membership.” Paul is urging the Republican Party to woo groups not already in its coalition, arguing there should be “a struggle to make the party better,” rather than the usual mantra that the party must be more conservative and needs ideological bouncers.

The question: Can Paul win over voters who don’t know the difference between a libertarian and a librarian? Can he take his father’s libertarianism — a kind of boutique libertarianism that appealed to niche voters — and make it more accessible?

For months Paul seemed engaged in a growing war of zingers with his perceived presidential nomination rival, the more moderate New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. But then came Christie’s “Bridge Over Troubled Political Waters.” Comeback, shmomeback.

Christie is now badly damaged political goods, which is why some influential Republicans are scrambling to draft Jeb Bush to run.

Paul has shown an ability to play the insider’s political game more skillfully than his dad. He seemed embarrassed and apologetic supporting the re-election bid of the quintessential Republican establishment insider, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

But it’s something he had to do. Being a pragmatist and an idealist could serve him well.

He also distinguished himself from the party’s most extreme, nay saying elements by getting into a feud and public rivalry with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. One scenario for Paul winning the nomination is for him to get momentum in early primaries, woo disaffected and millennial voters and hope his political competition blows it. Some charge that’s a flawed analysis. But others, such as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, predict Paul has a good shot at it.

If so, he’ll have to walk some political tightropes. He’d have to win over distrustful social conservatives and neocons, and if he calibrates positions too much he could negate his libertarian appeal.

Nationally, he must do some imagery repair. On his Facebook page satirist Andy Borowitz, who often captures the general national culture’s thinking, wrote: “POLL: Given choice between Paul and Cruz, most voters choose suicide.”

Paul’s Achilles heel is foreign policy. Neocons and many other Republicans consider his foreign policy naive, impractical and isolationist. And the long knives are out. Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin recently wrote about a 2013 video in which he “denigrates the potential use of force in Iran and bizarrely claims the United States was partially to blame for causing World War II.” Paul will have to stand by his beliefs or try a Rick Perry style, “Oops.”

Another storm cloud: billionaire GOP fat cat Sheldon Adelson. Adelson is prepared to donate millions to bolster a potential nominee who (1) can win the election, and (2) strongly supports Israel. Rand Paul is not the most Israel-friendly candidate, and many Jews considered his father Ron Paul an outright disaster and an anti-Semite.

There are many factors about Paul that conventional wisdom says will sink him. But has the political and cultural context shifted for the conventional wisdom? Has what normally played well in prime time America changed enough to make Rand Paul the wave of the GOP’s future?


Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He can be reached at