Months from now we may look back at Sunday as the moment when Rand Paul went from being a wannabe mainstream Republican contender to a fringe message candidate like his father.
The truth is that Paul never had a chance to win the GOP nomination because, among other reasons, his foreign policy worldview is just too far out of step with the base of the party. But the Kentucky senator seems (seemed?) to believe he can win and, at least for a moment, so did some of Washington’s pundit class.
“Rand Paul will win the whole thing because he can win Iowa, New Hampshire, he can win South Carolina, and he’s the only candidate you listed there that can win all three,” predicted MSNBC’s Chris Matthews in 2013.
“Paul looks like a better bet than anyone else to finish in the top two in both Iowa and New Hampshire,” wrote The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart in 2013 while deeming Paul the Republican front-runner.
But Paul has always had an especially daunting balancing act, needing to prove he wasn’t quite like his father so he doesn’t turn off the large swath of the Republican Party that views Ron Paul as somewhat of a nut, while at the same time not distancing himself too much from his old man’s non-interventionist libertarianism in order to ensure the “Ron Paul Revolution” would stand with him in 2016.
Now, with his decision to force the temporary expiration of several anti-terrorism provisions of the Patriot Act, the idea that Paul can actually win over a significant chunk of GOP primary voters may finally be fading.
Paul’s attempt to go mainstream may have worked for a time, but it is much harder task for the instinctually non-interventionist Kentucky senator to pull off when threats to American security dominate news cycles. Seeming more concerned with the threat of bulk metadata collection by the government is unlikely to win over many primary voters.
Indeed, reporting from Iowa, The Washington Post’s James Hohmann wrote that Republican voters there seemed ambivalent not only to the NSA’s metadata collection program, but to more intrusive anti-terrorism measures that the NSA does not even engage in.
“[A] number of voters interviewed said they thought that the NSA records all of their phone calls and reads their e-mails,” Hohmann wrote. “And, most of these voters said, that was fine with them.”
With ISIS on the march abroad, now is especially not the ideal time politically for Paul’s anti-National Security Agency shenanigans. Whether the Patriot Act provisions that Paul forced to temporarily expire are really crucial to keeping the homeland safe or not is besides the point, at least politically. Most Republicans seem to be willing to give the intelligence community the benefit of the doubt in this debate, especially when the surveillance authority in question doesn’t really affect them in any tangible way.
Paul’s actions Sunday might have excited members of his father’s Revolution — and enabled him to raise some money — but it has also opened him up to easy attacks by his Republican presidential competitors for playing politics with national security.
“Rand Paul’s decision to grandstand on national security matters makes him unfit to protect a 7-11, much less the United States of America,” you can imagine one of his GOP rivals slinging in an upcoming GOP debate. Fair or unfair, such an attack will probably prove effective, especially since the debate will pit almost the entire field against Paul on this issue.
The Republican primary field is stronger now than it was in 2012 when the elder Paul ran and came in third in Iowa and third in the overall nomination delegate count. Despite all the ink that has been spilled to herald the younger Paul as a top contender for the Republican nomination, there’s good reason to believe that he will perform worse in 2016 than his father did in 2012.
His actions Sunday don’t so much cement this likelihood as confirm it.