If you want to know who has the edge right now in the unofficial race for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, just take a look at who's being attacked by other presumptive candidates and party establishment types. Right now, that whipping boy is Rand Paul, who's not only a contender to win the nomination, but a very serious threat to a dearly-held Republican orthodoxy.
Everyone from possible presidential candidates Gov. Rick Perry (Texas), Gov. Chris Christie (N.J.), and Rep. Peter King (N.Y.), to party stalwarts Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), and Dick Cheney (Mordor), have taken turns pile-driving Paul into the political mat hoping he won't last long enough to win in 2016. While on Monday Joe Scarborough dismissed the prospect of a Paul nomination because "he's his father's son," the MSNBC host didn't have an answer as to who could beat him.
Imagine for a moment six or 10 Republicans on a debate stage in late 2015 trying to explain why they, and no one else on the stage, should get the party's nomination. Chris Christie is sweating profusely as he fields a question from Chris Wallace about Bridgegate. Rick Perry is beaming because it only took him four years to remember the name of that third agency. Marco Rubio is trying to explain his tax plan between sips of water. And Paul Ryan is doing 40-pound curls as he winks at Megyn Kelly. All of them are saying the same thing more or less, and the small policy differences that do exist lead to wonkish exchanges that make the people in the audience wonder if they remembered to turn off their stoves.
Enter Rand Paul.
While the other guys are wrangling over tax brackets, school vouchers, and where to bomb and commit troops next in an effort to out-hawk each another, there will be Paul calmly explaining -- with nearly 15 years of evidence behind him -- why the U.S. can't continue trotting around the globe trying to reshape other countries in its own image. He will talk about the need to cut foreign aid, which the GOP base hates, to nods of approval. He won't win over every GOP voter, or even a majority. He doesn't have to. He just needs to let the others split the hawk vote.
In theory, Rand Paul is what every Republican candidate strives to be: in favor of limited government across across the board. So much so that as a candidate in 2010, Paul drew the ire of fellow conservatives when he suggested that businesses shouldn't have been forced to desegregate in accordance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That prompted conservative columnist George Will to lament, "He doesn’t understand that his job is to win a Senate seat, not conduct a seminar on libertarian philosophy."
But at a time of a growing conservative obsession with ideological purity, and on the heels of decisive presidential defeats of two men who hardly met that standard in John McCain and Mitt Romney, hungry GOP voters will have little patience for another such candidate, which Paul certainly isn't.
What sets Paul apart from his party more than any other issue is foreign policy and civil liberties -- specifically the national security state. Although the GOP advocates small government, they favor an interventionist foreign policy that necessitates continued massive amounts of funding for an already large military budget. Many in the party have also been staunch defenders of the NSA and domestic surveillance in the name of fighting terrorism. This has put Republicans in the uncomfortable position of having to defend a president who they've been pointing to as the source for all that is wrong with country for the last five and a half years.
His potential opponents know this, and in a party that almost always seems to favor military intervention, Paul has distinguished himself for exactly this reason. What makes him dangerous is that he's more politically practical than his father, who ran in 2008 and 2012 -- experiences from which he can draw invaluable lessons. Hence, the staggering number of attacks on Paul from members of his own party.
Paul has also been critical of foreign aid, indicating he wants to eliminate it entirely, which of course has elicited some stinging rebukes from his own party.
There's a great irony here. The very anti-foreigner xenophobia that the GOP has been using to stoke fear and win elections will serve as a great asset for Paul, who has long railed against foreign aid, which though it comprises only about 1% of the federal budget, is an issue that resonates with the GOP base. Furthermore, his reluctance to commit U.S. forces to situations where the national security of the U.S. is not at stake will be a welcome position for many voters in a party that, no matter what Dick Cheney thinks, authored the biggest U.S. foreign policy disaster in 40 years.
Contrary to what Joe Scarborough said, Rand Paul is not Ron Paul. Rand is more pragmatic than his father, who in two straight presidential elections showed that a pure libertarian is not a winning national candidate in the GOP, despite the elder's vocal but small group of supporters. When the younger Paul said that any attack on Israel would be treated as an attack on the U.S., he denied an important talking point to his detractors who would paint him as not being a friend to Israel for wanting to pull foreign aid. That statement runs directly counter to what his father advocated in 2011.
Paul is by no means a lock to win the nomination. At this early stage, no one can be. Historically, the GOP has nominated the person whose time has come. Romney. McCain. Bush, Dole, Bush, Reagan. Paul hasn't even served a full term in the Senate yet, so it could hardly be said that it's his turn. But this is a party that's lost the presidential popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections, losing four of them.
Rand Paul won't have an easy path to the nomination, but more and more it's looking like he has the easiest.