Kentucky senator Rand Paul, who announced on Tuesday he would seek his Republican Party’s presidential nomination, walks a fine line between staying true to his libertarian principles and appeasing the more reactionary elements in his party. If he doesn’t end up alienating both constituencies, he could prove a surprisingly viable contender for the 2016 nomination.
Paul was one of many “Tea Party” candidates who won election in 2010 when Democrats struggled to get their controversial health reforms through Congress. Unlike many other Republicans, who only rediscovered their support for limited government when Barack Obama overreached, he came from a libertarian tradition. His father, Ron, had represented Texas in the House of Representatives for sixteen years before retiring in 2013. He hopelessly sought the presidency thrice, most recently in 2012.
Rand is not his father. He does not deride “American empire” nor advocate a total retreat from the world — although that is certainly how his opponents will characterize his noninterventionism.
He does resist the knee-jerk reaction of Republican hawks who seem to want to start a war whenever there is a crisis in the world. Given how thoroughly the Iraq War has discredited neoconservatism in the country, if not always in Washington DC, Paul’s risk-averse foreign policy may be more of an asset than a liability. It will anyway set him apart from other candidates who, to various degrees, promise to correct President Obama’s supposed abdication of American leadership.
More challenging is Paul’s small-government conservatism.
No one doubts his sincerity, which is a plus for activists who mistrust their party’s elite, but many primary voters may also conclude he is taking it too far. Do they really want to fight to get part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act repealed because it infringes on businesses’ freedom to discriminate against black customers? Do they want the Patriot Act repealed because it violates Americans’ privacy? Paul does.
On the other hand, libertarians are puzzled why the freedom-loving senator won’t support gay marriage nor declare unambiguously that he would legalize marijuana. A free marketeer who says government should get out of the way would surely back both?
His immigration reform plan is also far from radical. Paul would tie the approval of visas to an annual review of border security. If too many aliens cross over illegally in a given year, those following the rules and waiting in line would be punished under his regime. Nativists may like that. Libertarian it is not.
Paul has made some effort to reach out to black voters who overwhelmingly support Democrats, pointing out that mandatory minimum sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenses are disproportionately applied to male African Americans who make up around 40 percent of the prison population despite accounting for only 6 to 7 percent of the population at large. Excessive incarceration rates have contributed to the breakdown of the black family which conservatives see as the root cause of the ethnicity’s economic and social backwardness.
If Paul can convince conservatives that sometimes being “tough on crime” does more harm than good, that alone could make his candidacy worthwhile.
He will likely do well in the early primary state of New Hampshire where his father came in second last time with 23 percent support.
Beyond that, Paul’s path to the nomination is less clear. In the likely battle for primary votes between “establishment” candidate Jeb Bush and whoever emerges as the champion of evangelicals and the hard right, Paul could easily be crowded out. But he will nevertheless have a real impact on the early race if he forces the other candidates to talk about issues they would rather avoid and splits the anti-establishment vote to Bush’s benefit.
Paul is unlikely to win. But he also unlikely to stop trying to move the Republican Party in his direction. That makes it worth keeping an eye on him.