Rand Paul and Chris Christie's recent verbal tussle has led some to suggest that the men represent opposing poles of a battle for the soul of the Republican Party as they seek to position themselves in advance of the 2016 presidential election. The smart money at the Republican National Committee meeting in Boston last week was that the real 2016 contest isn't going to be between Paul and Christie, however, but between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the New Jersey governor, potentially pitting two pugnacious and experienced state executives against each other, with Walker tacking to the right and Christie tacking to the center on social issues.
While Walker is working at staying under-the-radar at this early date (about which: smart move), Paul has made himself a voluble presence in Washington, D.C. Democrats can only hope he wins the battle for the base and becomes the GOP's standard-bearer, because in a general election contest his candidacy could be especially alienating to the groups the GOP most needs to make inroads with:
1. Latinos. Rand Paul opposes the Senate Gang of Eight immigration reform bill. If this year's efforts at comprehensive immigration reform fail, Paul will be seen as among the killers. That could be devastating to his candidacy among Latinos, and thereby to his candidacy over all.
2. Women. George W. Bush did better with women than any Republican since the gender gap first showed up in presidential elections in 1980. The reason: security. Women feel all social ills more acutely and express more anxiety about homeland and economic security alike. A libertarian and isolationist worldview will not be the next popular political philosophy among women nationwide. Women are less open to libertarian drug reforms, according to research by the Brookings Institution, and are less likely to be libertarian activists, according to everyone who has ever paid any attention to the topic. As well, reproductive rights are not seen as a liberty interest by many libertarian conservatives, which is confusing to women who think their freedom is at stake in such questions. Some of the potential 2016 GOP candidates would be more likely to annoy, agitate, and mobilize single women voters to turn out, regardless of whom the Democratic nominee is. Rand Paul is one of them. Put him in a contest with Hillary Clinton and you've multiplied the problem.
3. African-Americans. Paul's support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has been equivocal. He thinks North Carolina's new voting restrictions are no big thing. He co-authored a book with "the Southern Avenger," Jack Hunter, a man who has written that Abraham Lincoln "had far more in common with the Nazi dictator than the Southern soldiers" and that the "congressional apology for slavery was completely illogical." Paul put Hunter, an avowed secessionist, on his payroll in the U.S. Senate.
With his past statement and alliances, Paul could provoke an African-American turnout boom against himself in an election that otherwise might see less enthusiasm for the Democratic nominee than there was for America's first black president. Paul has never had to seriously contend for the votes of a diverse electorate: Kentucky is less black (8.1 percent vs. 13.1 percent) and Hispanic (3.2 percent vs. 16.9 percent) than the U.S. average, according to the Census Bureau, and there is no question he is behind the curve when it comes to talking about race and justice in a diverse society in a way that does not raise the hackles of the very people he says he is trying to appeal to. And while even the most optimistic Republicans don't expect to make very much headway with African-Americans in 2016, repeated controversies about race could be expected to resonate negatively among other groups of potential voters.
4. The Middle Class. Some are hailing Paul as the voice of libertarian populism that could save the GOP, but the problems with his economic approach are already plain, as Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out in a Bloomberg column in June:
Paul's core problem, though, is his economic agenda. He thinks his views are more attractive than those of past Republicans because he rejects big government and the ways it helps big business. But in practice, this "libertarian populism" puts Republicans exactly where they don't need to be: on the opposite side from the middle class.
Paul's economic plan includes a 17 percent flat tax to replace the current income tax. The effect of such a policy would be a bigger bill for a lot of middle-class households. The median income for a family of four is $65,000, and under the current tax code -- assuming the family takes the standard deduction -- its federal income-tax bill would be about $2,700. Under the plan Paul sketches, it would be about $3,500.
At the same time that his economic ideas would make him easy to pigeonhole as not in tune with the middle class, Paul is alienating Wall Street types, a more traditional Republican constituency.
Financial services executives say they'll watch how Paul treats the eventual Fed nominee -- that is, whether or not he launches a full assault by organizing a filibuster, for example -- as evidence of the senator's interest in practicing political moderation. Already working against the former Bowling Green ophthalmologist is a sense within the financial services world that Paul has little sympathy for their worldview or interest in hearing their concerns about how attacks on the Fed's policies can rattle financial markets.
At the heart of these reservations about Paul is a suspicion that he is ultimately an ideological politician more driven by abstract debates than the implications of real-world policy. Paul prompted eye-rolling on both Wall Street and K Street when he recently offered two responses to a Bloomberg Businessweek reporter who asked for his ideal Fed nominees: Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, neither of whom is alive....
One Republican banking lobbyist, who asked to speak anonymously in order to be candid, said that many in the world of Wall Street see Paul as a "fringe guy" in part because "he takes this position on the Fed."
There are other factors that would make Paul a less-than-optimal GOP standard bearer, or raise questions about how realistic a shot he's got.
1. He's comparatively inexperienced. Paul is a first-term senator who has run and won only one political race in his life. Wait, you say, wasn't Obama also just a first-term senator when he ran for the presidency? Yes. But it wasn't his first campaign; he had run four times before making his presidential bid -- three successful state-senate races and one failed congressional bid. More important is the question of how Paul would do as a debater, as the rare non-lawyer in what is usually a field of legal sharpies. Clinton is an extremely accomplished debater; Paul might be able to become one over the course of a GOP primary contest, but it remains an open question how he'd fare.
2. He has a geographical handicap. There is no precedent for a Republican U.S. Senator from Paul's part of the South winning the presidency. In the 19th century, the GOP's presidential winners hailed from the North: Illinois, Ohio, New York. Midwestern and Northeasterners continued to dominate until the 1960s, when the GOP's base of presidential-level strength shifted to the West and the Southwestern part of the South, which is to say, California and Texas. Nixon was a U.S. senator and congressman from California before becoming vice president and president. Former California governor Ronald Reagan was born in the Midwest but presented as all Western, in his cowboy hat and boots, by the time he sought the presidency. Bush père was a congressman from Texas by way of a Northeast upbringing, later lifted into the highest office by the vice presidency. Bush fils was governor of Texas, but he had a good measure of Northeast culture in him, too. Paul was born in Pennsylvania and raised in Texas, but his two decades in Kentucky now situate him as a politician from one of the South's smaller states. Is this a moment where Kentucky, population 4.4 million, represents the future of America, the way California did under Reagan? No, it is not.
3. He's a sitting senator. Barack Obama won the presidency despite being a sitting senator, the first time that's happened since John F. Kennedy. How likely is it that the U.S. Senate, in this most divisive of eras, should now become the launchpad for presidential aspirations across the aisle, and that this less common pathway to the White House would be the one that works in the very next election cycle?
One could ask this question of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz as well -- and also point out that it's been since Reagan that someone not currently in office, as Hillary Clinton currently is not, won the presidency.
4. Paul is an oppo researcher's dream. Having burst onto the national scene as a 2010 Tea Party politician, Paul might be able to win the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames -- assuming the Iowa GOP even keeps the straw poll -- but it means he also got his political career going with the aid of a fair number of folks who will be seen as extremists by middle-of-the-road political observers. The political conversation in Kentucky is very different from the one at the national level -- and so is the level of media scrutiny, as the Jack Hunter story shows. Paul has never been subjected to a national Democratic Party vetting and presidential-level media scrutiny. That's starting to change, and to reveal things that are going to make his political life more complicated.