There are many reasons to be bullish about Rand Paul's unconventional campaign for president. He's relentlessly courting support from young voters and African Americans, making the explicit case that outreach can translate into wider support. He's embracing issues that Republicans usually don't dare touch, such as criminal-justice reform, drug decriminalization, and reining in government surveillance. And based on the early polls, he's finding himself in solid shape, running competitively against Hillary Clinton and in the top tier of Republican presidential candidates. He even got some good luck, with Nevada's legislature opting this week to maintain the state's early caucuses (which benefits Paul) rather than switch to a primary system (that would favor Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio).
But if Paul wants to be president, he's making a huge strategic mistake, one that's puzzling some of his GOP allies. By railing against any government surveillance designed to target terrorists and suggesting that U.S. military intervention fueled the rise of ISIS, he's badly alienating the vast majority of Republican voters who otherwise would give his campaign a long look. At a time when hawkish sentiment within the party is near historic highs and concern over terrorist threats is rising, Paul seems content to thumb his nose at erstwhile supporters—and limit his appeal to only his libertarian base.
Indeed, the rise of ISIS has badly hurt the political standing of libertarians who, like Paul, prioritized the importance of civil liberties over combating terrorism. In January 2015, Pew Research Center polling found that 57 percent of Republicans believe that antiterrorism policies "have not gone far enough to protect the US"—a jump of 19 points from July 2013, when a plurality took the opposite view. By smaller margins, a plurality of Democrats and independents also believe now that national security takes precedence over civil liberties.
That's a huge shift in American public opinion in less than two years—and one that has been underappreciated by the relatively small libertarian wing of the Republican Party. Paul himself has struggled to adjust to the new political reality, veering between arguing pragmatically that overturning federal surveillance measures wouldn't impact America's security and sticking to principle by calling them unconstitutional. On foreign policy, he once portrayed his noninterventionist approach as more muscular ("I am not an isolationist") before running aggressively against the hawks ("ISIS exists "¦ because of the hawks in our party"). His legislative blockage of the domestic spying programs was reminiscent of Ted Cruz's strategy in filibustering towards a government shutdown, except Cruz's maximalist position on the budget actually has a larger constituency within the Republican Party.
Paul is looking more eager to make enemies than allies lately. His comment on Morning Joe that Republican hawks were responsible for the rise of ISIS was a gratuitous shot that earned him the ire of many GOP rivals. Paul even suggested, on the Senate floor, that his opponents were secretly "rooting for" a terrorist attack so they could blame him—remarks he later walked back. Meanwhile, his procedural maneuvers delayed renewal of several key Patriot Act provisions, leaving himself open to criticism that he was endangering national security for political reasons. And in doing so, he shattered an alliance of convenience with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who ostensibly is endorsing Paul's campaign but hasn't done much lately to help him out. Paul's super PAC even released an over-the-top video that mocked sometime-allies like Ted Cruz in a provocative manner.
One senior Republican official, who was recruited to work on Paul's presidential campaign, called the campaign so far a "disaster"—and viewed the candidate's stubbornness against acquiescing to political realities as a major problem going forward.
That wasn't part of Paul's original plan. His alliance with McConnell was designed to prevent the very rifts that broke out so publicly this past week. McConnell benefited from the deal in securing tea-party support for his contentious Senate primary against Matt Bevin. McConnell kept the party united long enough to win reelection.
But for Paul to benefit from the deal, he needed the bargain to last longer into the year and to have some semblance of establishment support heading into the key primaries. That's looking unlikely now. Paul decided it was worth breaking the alliance to scuttle legislation he's railed against his whole senatorial career. That's left him reliant on his base of core supporters, with a primary ceiling that will be hard to break. He's made the calculation that it's worth achieving a significant legislative accomplishment in exchange for a bracing political setback. "Senator Paul will follow the Constitution over any poll," Paul's spokesman told The Washington Post.
It's understandable that Paul wouldn't cave on the issue that's defined his political career. It's not dissimilar to Jeb Bush's resistance to caving to conservative demands on Common Core and immigration reform.
But in the process, Paul is proving himself to be a lot closer politically to his father, Ron Paul, than most rank-and-file Republicans are comfortable with. And his libertarian, noninterventionist principles, while his party becomes increasingly hawkish, are costing him any shot he once had to win the GOP presidential nomination.