Watch Out for Rand Paul

He's had several bad weeks, but he continues to bring things to the table that no other potential GOP 2016 candidate does.

After his Senate career got off to an auspicious start, Rand Paul has had a tough few weeks. He’s seen potential rivals within the party rise, as Chris Christie cruised to a second term in New Jersey and Ted Cruz captured the hearts of Tea Partiers. He has seen allies fall. His missteps and mistakes have been dissected to the point where’s been painted as a plagiarist à la Joe Biden circa 1988 (maybe he’ll have to wait twenty years to become vice president).

Meanwhile, Paul has found himself in an awkward spot in two of the Republicans’ biggest intra-party disputes. He is backing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for reelection, while avoiding saying anything critical of his primary challenger Matt Bevin, whose strongest supporters are also Rand fans. He sided with the Tea Party on defunding Obamacare while obviously thinking the partial government shutdown that resulted was a political blunder.

All of these problems in their own way illustrate the bigger challenges Rand Paul faces. He wants to be the conservative’s conservative, the face of the Tea Party, while also growing the party and moving beyond platitudes that had gone stale before Newt Gingrich was sent packing in the ‘90s. As he maintains that delicate balance, he must also perform a careful dance with the true believers in his base that may not be ready for primetime, and the Republican regulars whose only complaint about the status quo is that too many Democrats hold office.

Paul is striving to be the rarest thing in American politics: an effective ideologue, a man of both conscience and results.

But before writing off Kentucky’s junior senator, it’s worth remembering that he brings things to the table that no other potential 2016 GOP candidate does—and has the potential for worthwhile accomplishments even if he never wins the Ames straw poll.

Paul’s filibuster over the Obama administration’s use of drones is a case in point: he actually shifted the popular debate on this issue, which few people had been paying any attention to. (By one measure, he moved public opinion 50 points in his favor.)

Cruz’s stand against Obamacare may ultimately get more play with primary voters. The Texas senator is now the face of opposition to a law that increasingly looks like an unmitigated disaster. But Cruz was merely telling conservatives what they already wanted to hear. There is no evidence he changed anyone’s opinions about Obamacare—it took the actual implementation of the blasted thing to do that—and good reason to believe he actually stepped on the initial news stories showing Obamacare unraveling.

Paul made an argument on drones that transcended normal partisan politics, winning plaudits from conscientious liberals and big-L Libertarians. He made opposition to targeted drones strikes the smart position for ambitious Republicans. (Do you really think Reince Preibus and Marco Rubio’s impulses on this issue are closer to Paul’s than John McCain’s?) And he opened conservatives’ minds on a crucial question: can constitutionally limited government really survive an open-ended war on terror where, as Lindsey Graham puts it, the American homeland is a battlefield?

Paul is also the only Republican in the running that has attempted outreach to minority communities through policy, rather than his own ethnicity or status as an incumbent so popular that even many Democrats will vote for him over a challenger Democratic leaders had largely abandoned.

The obvious rejoinder is that Paul has no choice, because he can’t claim to be either of those things. He isn’t Hispanic and he isn’t governor of New Jersey. But that’s true of most Republicans. Second, Paul does have a choice: he could refuse to engage in minority outreach at all, or limit his outreach to safe topics like school choice, which have occasionally succeeded in building issue-based alliances between Republicans and communities of color but have seldom won Republicans minority votes.