Let’s begin with the usual disclaimer: Nobody knows what’s going to happen. We’re in “Jaws versus the monkey” territory.
With that out of the way, on the eve of Sen. Rand Paul’s likely presidential announcement, it seems fitting to do a quick “Where are we now?” synopsis of The State of Rand Paul.
While I don’t share Paul’s libertarian-leaning politics, I do respect his message of inclusion. But none of that matters. What follows is an analysis of his electoral potential, and here — despite the fact that he once led in Iowa and New Hampshire — I am skeptical about his path to victory.
First, let’s start with the conventional wisdom that Rand Paul begins with his father’s base — and expands that by being a better, more palatable, version of dear old dad.
This is plausible, but do we really know that this theory is accurate? I suspect that at least some of the people who were passionate about Ron won’t be as passionate about Rand. Do they turn out to vote in a caucus? Do they volunteer to campaign for him? And does he have to throw them libertarian “red meat” to make sure they do?
This conundrum is why we have ended up with a balancing act where Rand is forced to engage in acts of prestidigitation to be all things to all people. How can he keep his dad’s fans happy, but avoid being tagged a fringe kook — by virtue of association?
On several occasions, I’ve written about Paul’s daunting challenge: “Keeping these disparate groups happy is sort of like trying to put a Rubik’s Cube together. In wooing one bloc, Paul risks alienating another.”
Of course, part of the reason Rand has had to engage in contortions is that the political environment has shifted against his strengths. Once Russia invaded Crimea, the notion that Rand could make hay out of cornering the anti-interventionist market in the GOP went out the window. The rise of ISIS only made things harder for him.
But as if Rand didn’t already have his hands full balancing disparate constituencies he needs to incorporate into a winning coalition — and fighting against the foreign policy zeitgeist — Rand’s biggest problem is probably Sen. Ted Cruz. (As the Houston Chronicle reported, Cruz advisers are planning to “dominate with the same tea party voters who supported his underdog Senate campaign in 2012. But the key to victory, Cruz advisers believe, is to be the second choice of enough voters in the party’s libertarian and social conservative wings to cobble together a coalition to defeat the chosen candidate of the Republican establishment.”)
It’s hard not to see Cruz as simply a better version of Rand. Sure, he’s not as pure a libertarian as Rand — but then again, Rand has had to undermine his own claim on libertarian purity along the way, making this a battle of degrees (Rand’s best hope is that his father’s supporters will — with a wink and a nod — give him a pass during the campaign to say and do what he needs to win. But it’s hard to see how this strategy will engender excitement among the libertarian faithful).
Rand is a social conservative, which works in Iowa, but Cruz is a better social conservative. Paul’s a better speaker than his dad — but Cruz (like his dad) isn’t just a public speaker; he’s essentially a preacher. At some point, Ted Cruz’s division is going to play Rand Paul’s division, and it’s hard to imagine Paul will come out on top after that encounter.
Note: Matt Lewis’ wife previously consulted for Ted Cruz’s senate campaign, and currently consults for RickPAC, the leadership PAC affiliated with Rick Perry.