Rand Paul Is a Savvier Politician Than Karl Rove Would Prefer

The Kentucky Senator was the surprising focus of an Aspen Ideas Festival panel on the future of the Republican Party.
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Is Rand Paul the future of the Republican Party?

"One of the greater phenomena since the election has been the emergence of Rand Paul as a serious national figure," former Republican Rep. Vin Weber said Thursday on an Aspen Ideas Festival stage. "I served with his father in Congress, liked him, and thought he was a very smart guy .... He was proselytizing for an idea, and by that standard, he made quite a bit of progress. But his son seems to have a different ambition. And in the polling and commentary I've seen lately he's being taken seriously, needs to be taken seriously, not just as a person with a message, but as a potential Republican nominee -- maybe even," he added, "a potential president."

The remarks were made during a panel on the future of the Republican Party featuring two influential partisans, Karl Rove and Michael Gerson, chief speechwriter during the Bush Administration. Neither regards Paul's brand of libertarian-influenced politics as the right direction for the GOP. But they agreed that he's a very effective politician who may well keep rising.

The extent to which Paul became the focus of a conversation among people who'd rather he were less prominent was striking. Rove mused on the way he's positioned himself on foreign policy.

"Rand Paul when he entered into this didn't do a full frontal attack on Afghanistan or the war on terror," he said. "He took the image of a drone hanging over the Starbucks on the corner of Main and 3rd in Aspen, and getting ready to find an Aspen based terrorist and shoot a Hellfire missile right into the Starbucks. That showed a great intuitive sense of what the American people would like and not like."

Gerson remarked on his domestic message. 

"He's very different from his father," he said. "Rand Paul really represents libertarianism without the edge of loonyness. He's very good at speaking into events to support a very strong ideological perspective. And there are a lot of events now that are conspiring in a libertarian direction. Everything from exhaustion with global commitments, which I think is broadly shared by Americans, whether we head toward a crash with fiscal easing, which I think has been a traditional libertarian critique. Also we have recent events that seem to be conspiring to confirm conspiracy theories, whether it's the IRS or the NSA, or the FBI, domestic drones. I think the reaction to this is often wildly overblown, but it fits the libertarian narrative very very well."

Gerson went on to argue that Paul won't be able to lead the Republican Party to victory, because he can't solve the most challenging political problem facing it: addressing the concerns of working class voters. "We have an economy that is continually stagnant for them, no matter what the situation is in the broader economy, and with new Americans who are concerned with social mobility," he said. "One of the most extraordinary facts that came out of the great recession was that in the worst days of the great recession, people with a four-year college degree have a 4.5 percent unemployment rate. People with just a high-school degree had a 24 percent unemployment rate. We're an economy that's increasingly segregated by class based on things like skills, education, family structure, a lot of things that have to do with social capital. The question is, are Republicans going to speak to the lived experience of the Americans they need to appeal to on the economy? I don't think libertarianism speaks to those concerns effectively."

It's a critique that all libertarian-influenced politicians will have to address. Watch this space for thoughts on how they might do so -- a tricky thing to accomplish, since their appeal to their most ardent supporters is strict adherence to principles that aren't yet shared by a nationwide  majority.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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