Rand Paul's Secret Weapon: Hillary Clinton

If she seals the 2016 nomination early, it will free up Democratic and independent voters to cross over into Republican primaries—and into the Kentucky senator's embrace.
Jim Bourg/Reuters

Consider this post another installment in the series: “Rand Paul could win the Republican nomination. Please stop laughing.”

In previous installments, we’ve argued that Paul will inherit from his father a preexisting campaign structure in Iowa and New Hampshire that few, if any, of his rivals can match. We’ve argued that Paul is showing the ability to raise real money, both from GOP insiders and via small donations over the web. And we’ve argued that, at least so far, Republican primary voters in key early states see Paul as a mainstream conservative, not a libertarian wacko bird.

Which brings us to Paul’s other great, unnoticed, strength: Hillary Clinton. While things could always change, the 2016 Democratic nomination is so far shaping up as the least competitive, non-incumbent presidential primary contest in memory. It looks increasingly likely that if Clinton faces any opposition at all, it will be from a Don Quixote like Bernie Sanders or Brian Schweitzer, not a challenger with any genuine political base or ability to raise substantial money.

For Rand Paul, that’s fabulous. It means lots of Democrats and independents will cross over to vote in Republican primaries, where the action is. And most of them will vote for him.

When it comes to government’s role in the economy, Paul’s views are diametrically opposed to most Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. But that will be true of his major opponents too. What distinguishes Paul is that on some high-profile issues—government spying, military intervention, prison sentences—he espouses views that many Democrats find not only agreeable, but downright exciting. On NSA surveillance, for instance, Paul probably better represents the views of many grassroots liberal activists than do many Washington Democrats. Paul is more reluctant to send American troops into harm’s way than Hillary Clinton. The recently discovered speech in which he suggested Dick Cheney pushed for the Iraq War so that Halliburton would profit.

If liberals don’t know that Paul holds these views now, they will by 2016. With the Democratic primary campaign a snooze, the press will devote massive attention to the GOP race. And Paul’s Republican opponents will mercilessly attack him for his unorthodox national-security views, thus likely winning him even more sympathy among liberal Democrats and Independents.

The best model for all this is 2000 when John McCain—although a conventional Republican on many issues—titillated Democrats with his crusade for campaign-finance reform and his criticism of George W. Bush’s plan for to cut taxes for the rich. The more the GOP establishment demonized McCain, the more Democrats and liberal independents figured he must be doing something right. Independents comprised almost a third of the voters in the New Hampshire primary that year, and they favored McCain over Bush by 42 points. Independents and Democrats, who in previous years had constituted about 30 percent of voters in Michigan’s Republican primary, comprised more than 50 percent in 2000, and overwhelmingly backed McCain.

There are differences between McCain in 2000 and Paul in 2012, of course. McCain was considered a strong general-election candidate, which made him harder for the GOP establishment to stop—though of course stop him it ultimately did. Paul, by contrast, is widely considered a Republican George McGovern: an inexperienced ideologue whom Clinton would crush. But on the other hand, Paul has more fervent support in segments of the GOP base, and in the age of the Tea Party, Republican elites are weaker now than they were a decade and a half ago.

A few years ago, pundits began speculating about a liberal-libertarian alliance against the imperialistic, morally coercive right. So far, it’s been merely fodder for blogs. But for a brief period in early 2016, it could take form. And it’s another reason that the conventional wisdom is wrong. Rand Paul really could be the next Republican presidential nominee.

Presented by

Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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