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.
As it happens, Paul has championed school choice. But he has also talked about the havoc mandatory minimum sentences—both an excess of the Reagan-era Drug War and an understandable reaction to liberal judges that has now gone too far—have wreaked in minority communities. Without inviting caricatures of his libertarianism by advocating full-scale legalization, he has talked about racial disparities in how drug laws are enforced. He has touted a non-bailout relief plan for Detroit.
Ever since his fateful interview with Rachel Maddow over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Paul will get little credit in some quarters for these efforts. And his attempts at minority outreach haven’t always been perfect. But they are real, and could be emulated by the rest of the Party.
Paul also has an almost unique capacity to bring together two warring factions within the Republican Party: religious conservatives and libertarians. Consider his speech at Liberty University. The media misrepresented it as a conventional jeremiad against abortion—the word “abortion” wasn’t even used. And the revelation that it cribbed a movie summary from a Wikipedia entry triggered a string of embarrassing stories.
But the Liberty speech was an example of a prominent Republican talking to young religious conservatives about the need to safeguard civil liberties and rein-in the Patriot Act. More importantly, it was an appeal to the human dignity in which both social conservatives and libertarians believe, against liberals who would like to create a risk-free society. In a word, it was “fusionism,” the libertarian-conservative synthesis first articulated by the late National Review editor Frank Meyer.
Finally, Paul remains the strongest counterweight to neoconservatives within the GOP. Paul has made non-interventionist, and even realist, arguments in terms that the Republican rank-and-file can understand. On everything from foreign aid to the proposed Syria intervention, he made the hawks look like they are on the side of America’s enemies, not the doves. Iran will be his biggest challenge.
Purists don’t like that Paul has supported sanctions against Iran or has (rightly) criticized the regime in Tehran. But with all the opportunistic arguments back in the hawkish Republicans’ favor, Paul is the most prominent conservative pushing in the opposite direction. If the GOP isn’t blamed for a third Middle East war, he will deserve thanks.
Conservatives shouldn’t give up on Rand Paul just yet.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation.
Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.