LOS ANGELES, August 14, 2015 — The 2016 Republican presidential primary field is strong. That was proven, to any objective observer, by the first GOP debates.
While the leaders of the field, according to the polls leading up to the debate, turned in less than impressive performances — Jeb Bush was generic and lackluster, Donald Trump if you actually paid attention was typically bombastic but not very substantive and Scott Walker was just sort of there — the night saw some excellent debate performances.
Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and, in the earlier “happy hour” debate, Carly Fiorina, the field’s one female candidate showed their strength. One candidate stood out from the rest, however, not so much because he was the best, but because he tried the hardest while accomplishing nearly the least.
That was Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
Paul is an extraordinarily valuable member of the United States Senate. He is important to the future of American politics. He may not have the natural political skill of a Marco Rubio or the institutional armor of a Jeb Bush, but he has the capacity to be thoughtful and eloquent. Paul brings a consciously constitutionally based perspective that America desperately needs to hear.
Possessing a potentially more powerful advantage than any other candidate, Paul tends the seeds of an actual political movement that is trying to grow beneath him. This movement not just libertarianism, but a multicultural, multigenerational movement for bipartisanship, racial unity, military restraint, strong currency and anti-corporatism. It is pro-liberty, a return to the constitutional principles that must guide the progress of this nation.
It is a shame, then, that he doesn’t know what sort of campaign he wants to run.
Paul’s campaign to date has been petulant and irritable, the candidate himself defensive and testy in interviews. His campaign emails are regularly headlined with phrases like “Bracing for the Worst,” “Bad News,” “Their Days are Numbered,” “Doomed” and “Deep Trouble,” with each one leaving you with more anxiety than the last.
A blustery debate performance, though it included a spirited exchange with Gov. Christie over domestic surveillance that galvanized Paul’s own supporters, followed perfectly in this pattern. Out the gate he railed from the sidelines against “The Donald” for not pledging to support the eventual Republican nominee — one doubts he was so hard on his father for not doing so — and then attacking him for not being “Republican” enough on healthcare, only to be effectively dismissed by one of Trump’s backhanded witticisms.
It called to mind a Chihuahua yapping at a Great Dane.
It’s not uncommon for political candidates to swing between the extremes of pugnacity and paranoia in their messaging to their supporters. Red meat and fear are the tools of ordinary political candidates. But Paul’s campaign should have been a little bit more than ordinary. As Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 demonstrated, unity and optimism can still be winning themes in American politics.
The muscularly conservative rhetoric of the Paul campaign betrays an insecurity within the Paul campaign that was clear and predictable to anyone paying attention: The Paul campaign is afraid of not being conservative enough to win a Republican primary. So he challenges the Republicanism of Trump instead of confronting him on the substance of the issues.
He attacks Lindsey Graham and John McCain not merely for being wrong on Syria, but for being too close to President Obama on the issue, to preempt the obvious charge to which he is vulnerable: According to the way we’ve defined left and right in the foreign policy arena since at least the sixties, he is the one figure in the Republican field who could plausibly be described as on Obama’s left on foreign policy.
Yet Paul’s restrained views of military power and his aggressive embrace of diplomacy are what earn him the passionate allegiance of libertarian Republicans, and even of more conventional Republicans who have grown weary of the interventionism of the Bush years, just as they did for his father before him. Anti-militarism is one of the defining features of the liberty movement, the bridge upon which a candidate such as Paul could conceivably unite left and right.
The defining issue on that score is the agreement being brokered between the United States, the United Nations and Iran to contain Iran’s nuclear program via diplomatic means, the approach Rand Paul has always said he supports.
On this issue, Paul had a viable political choice choice: He could fit in with the Republican crowd by opposing the agreement, as virtually every other significant Republican has done, with the notable exception of his own father; or he could use this issue to announce a stark break with the GOP field and signal that his own candidacy is unique in American politics.
He had a chance to lead; he chose conformity.
Perhaps Paul really does oppose the Iran agreement, in which case he made the right choice. But it’s hard to believe his opposition is sincere when it seems so inconsistent with his foreign policy views prior to his presidential campaign.
It is more likely that Paul did not want to run the risk of alienating the base of the party. But in a race with over a dozen other candidates who will split that vote anyway, he now risks not being able to consolidate the broader ranks of his own base, which is the ethnically, ideologically and generationally diverse base of support that his father largely built before him with sheer political integrity and courage.
It is a base that could include fiscal conservatives, constitutional conservatives, foreign policy liberals, social justice activists, millennials, African-Americans and libertarians — or he could run just another Republican campaign.
“I’m a different kind of Republican,” Paul declared in his closing debate statement. “I’ve also gone to Chicago, I’ve gone to Detroit, I’ve been to Ferguson, I’ve been to Baltimore … I’m a different kind of Republican.”
It’s clear that Rand Paul wants to be a different kind of Republican. Time will tell if he has the courage to be.