THE NATIONAL seismograph on the 2016 presidential race hasn’t kicked in yet; rumblings of the recent past from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have so far come to nothing, and campaign noises from New Jersey governor and traffic director Chris Christie probably never will. But if a spate of recent policy pronouncements and TV appearances is any indication, it’s a very safe bet that Rand Paul will jump into the White House derby.
In some meaningful ways, he already has. Slowly but surely, in a kind of aspirational mission creep, the junior Republican senator from Kentucky has been elevating his profile, taking steps to advance his star as Not Just Another Republican Politician.
It’s a course of action with as many pitfalls as positives.
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In other ways, he’s pushed back against the ritual rigidities of his party: He backed the Supreme Court’s decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act — a victory for LGBT Americans. He filibustered on the floor against confirmation of John Brennan as CIA Director, winning hosannahs from Republicans and Democrats alike.
In a March 2013 speech on immigration reform, before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Paul staked out a pragmatic and politically courageous position, saying plainly that “the Republican Party must embrace more legal immigration.”
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HE’S BEEN working on his optics and op-eds too: Recall his interview with Vogue magazine less than a year ago, a piece that included a photo of Paul and one of his three sons, an image whose pastoral, polished, color-saturated setting looked like an ad for Polo Ralph Lauren.
Fast forward to last week, when the senator stepped briefly back into his old job as an ophthalmologist and conducted pro bono surgery on patients in Guatemala.
More recently, Paul has been a frequent fixture in the news pages, writing opinion pieces for The New York Times, Time, Politico, CNN, National Review and The Wall Street Journal. He’s been just as visible on the Sunday-gasbag shows like NBC’s “Meet the Press” and Fox’s “On the Record With Greta Van Susteren.”
He’s been carefully picking his spots, positioning himself as a man of good works, a true thought leader and not ... just ... another Republican politician. And Paul has been working the clock and doing it well. By marking his territory now, he’s smartly laying the rhetorical and optical groundwork for a presidential campaign — one that he’ll almost certainly announce by this time next year.
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The Democratic side is another matter entirely, and a big reason Paul has been so visible lately. While Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren isn’t likely to get into the race — not least of all because of her effectiveness where she is in the Senate — a certain former secretary of state is poised to give Paul, or anyone else, all they can handle.
Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has also steadily ratcheted up her profile with speeches and comments meant to keep her top of mind for 2016 (as well as writing and promoting a book, “Hard Choices,” in a bookstore near you.
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THERE’S NO question Paul hears footsteps. He wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Thursday, on U.S. interventionism and its possible role in the genesis of ISIS. That’s the profile part of the senator’s new persona. But while predictably scoring Clinton (as a loyal Republican is expected to do), his WSJ piece also brought the policy, taking some of his own party’s more “hawkish members” to task.
He writes: “Some said it would be ‘catastrophic’ if we failed to strike Syria. What they were advocating for then — striking down Assad's regime — would have made our current situation even worse, as it would have eliminated the only regional counterweight to the ISIS threat. ...
“A more realistic foreign policy would recognize that there are evil people and tyrannical regimes in this world, but also that America cannot police or solve every problem across the globe. Only after recognizing the practical limits of our foreign policy can we pursue policies that are in the best of the U.S.”
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Ben Domenech wrote this about Rand Paul in The Federalist back in February: “Republican primary voters don’t need you to be a foreign or defense policy expert: they need to have confidence in you as a potential commander in chief. Paul’s opponents will attempt to turn him into his father, and his perspective into a clownish and dangerous caricature. But they will likely be unsuccessful in that effort if Paul takes steps now to avoid this while it’s in his power to do so.
“Paul can control that aspect of how he presents himself. What he cannot control is the chaos of world events, which may in the intervening time send the Republican Party’s Jacksonians back to their traditional ways. Today protesters are filling the streets in Venezuela; the Iran talks are struggling; the administration’s Syria strategy is proving the clusterfail we all expected; Japan is brandishing the sword; the North Korean human rights debacle is well in evidence; and Ukraine is literally on fire. How the Republican Party’s base reacts to this instability, and to Obama’s meandering foreign policy, remains an open question.”
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DOMESTICALLY, Paul’s got work to do too. Despite his reach for the brass ring of thematic gravitas and breadth, Paul can be a very prickly, reactionary politician. He whiffed badly, for example, in January on “Meet the Press,” when he tried to reawaken the long-settled matter of former president Bill Clinton’s dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky — as a way to besmirch Hillary Clinton, his likely 2016 challenger, by association.
“I think really the media seems to have given President Clinton a pass on this,” Rand Paul said on Jan. 26. “He took advantage of a girl that was 20 years old and an intern in his office. There is no excuse for that, and that is predatory behavior.”
When then-MTP host David Gregory pushed him on it, Paul admitted that the former president’s actions weren’t a direct reflection on the former secretary of state, but. “It’s not Hillary’s fault, but it is a factor in judging Bill Clinton in history,” he said.
Then, lowering the rhetorical bar even more, Paul commented on the Clintons’ close personal and political relationship, saying that “sometimes it's hard to separate one from the other.”
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I wrote this last September: “Regardless of its deep and noble roots during the Age of Enlightenment, libertarianism has long been viewed by Americans as an odd duck, a philosophy that focuses on the importance of personal liberty in a free-wheeling way, happily sampling a little of everything at the buffet of America’s two-party political system — even as some of its central tenets (a relative absence of government involvement in economic matters, for example) dovetail nicely with the anti-regulatory posture of the modern GOP.”
That in a nutshell is the big push for Rand Paul, if he does decide to run: He is challenged by the laissez-faire dimension of the libertarianism he espouses globally, and the inconsistent diversity of the libertarian-tinged politics he proposes domestically.
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HE DISPLAYS an expansiveness that begins to look like dilettantism. But luring black voters doesn’t work if it comes at the expense of women voters; backing a House bill to end protection for young beneficiaries of the DREAM Act hardly dovetails with supporting the 11 million undocumented immigrants, which he did last year; adopting an isolationist position on world affairs doesn’t exactly jibe with the realpolitik necessities of national security in a relentlessly interconnected world.
Despite Paul’s new-look pretensions and throat-clearing from various high editorial places, a cafeteria approach to governing isn’t likely to be enough for a country hungry for a throughline, a unanimity of thought and intention, policy and purpose.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously observed in “The Crack-Up” that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
Rand Paul has the “opposed ideas in the mind” part down cold. The open question is how, and how well, he’d “retain the ability to function” as president in a world that’s increasingly chaotic and interdependent, and a nation that’s increasingly angry and polarized, all the time.
His big job now is to show the American public — and maybe even himself — he knows the difference between being a compass and being a windsock. And to act accordingly.
Image credits: Paul top: Jamelle Bouie. Paul and Booker: Kate Patterson/Politico. Paul and son: Jonathan Becker for Vogue. Clinton: NBC News. Gaza procession: via Mother Jones. Women voters: via malialitman.wordpress.com.