Rand Paul The GOP Front Runner? Not Likely
Even leaving aside the fact that it is far too early to be making such assessments, the idea that Rand Paul is the front runner for the Republican nomination in 2016 fails the logic test.
In a post ranking the potential Republican candidates for President, Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake put Kentucky Senator at the top of the list:
1. Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.). People used to roll their eyes when we said Paul had a real chance to be the Republican nominee in 2016. Not anymore. Paul has a unique activist and fundraising base, thanks to his father’s two runs for president, and has shown considerable savvy in his outreach to the establishment end of the party over the past few years. Paul still says odd things — his blaming of high cigarette taxes for Eric Garner’s chokehold death at the hands of New York City police being the latest — that would get him in trouble in the heat of a presidential race. But he is the candidate furthest along in the planning process for president and the one with the most strength in early states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
At first glance, it seems like an odd choice. While it is true that Senator Paul has proven himself to be quite politically adept, especially for someone who had not held political office before January 2011 and who had not even run for office in his own right until his first Senate campaign in 2010, although he had been involved in many of his father’s campaigns over the years. Indeed, perhaps the most striking thing about Senator Paul has been the extent to which he has been different from his father both in the issues that he has chosen to emphasize publicly and in the political skill that he has demonstrated during his short time in office. Notwithstanding the senior Paul’s longer tenure in office and the fact that he ended his political career with three Presidential campaigns under his belt, I think its fair to say that in many ways his son has far better political instincts than his father ever did. To some degree, no doubt, this has been due to the fact that the junior Paul has surrounded himself with a better set of political advisers, and that he has quite obviously had national ambitions of some kind on his mind for several years now, however much of it also appears to be Paul himself, who has done a good job of honing in on issues such as sentencing reform, voting rights for felons, government surveillance, and public doubts about interventionist foreign policy positions to gain press attention for himself in no small part because he is talking about things that Republicans don’t normally talk about.
Cillizza and Blake are also correct in noting that Paul has gone further than most other potential candidates in building up an early network in states such as Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. To some extent, that network appears to be built off of the “Campaign for Liberty” network that grew out of Congressman Ron Paul’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns for President, but they have also expanded beyond that to include important social conservatives in Iowa and elsewhere, which could be essential in combating candidacies on the part of Ted Cruz and others in a potential 2016 race. Perhaps most importantly, though, Senator Paul has managed to grow beyond the reputation that his father had as something of a quixotic crank who never really got anything of substance accomplished in Congress. Given that he spent three years as part of the Senate minority, there admittedly not very much that Paul can point to as a legislative accomplishment on his part, but he has co-sponsored several interesting pieces of legislation and, most recently, has worked together with New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker on a measure that would reform several aspects of the criminal justice system at the Federal level. Rising above all of this, of course, is the fact that Paul has come to be seen by many libertarian-leaning Republicans, or people who might be inclined to lean Republican, as their best hope for a viable Presidential candidate in the modern era. Because of that, you’ll find much vocal support for a Paul for President campaign even among those not inclined to support Republican candidates for President in another circumstance.
All of that being said, there are many reasons to be skeptical about the idea of Rand Paul as a top Presidential contender, and Jonathan Bernsteain lists many of them:
I remain highly skeptical and will have to see some explicit support from important party actors outside of the Paul orbit (and outside of Kentucky, where he and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell have developed a working relationship). We know that Paul will have some important opponents within the party, especially on national security. He’s going to need some serious supporters to overcome that. And given the large, strong group of contenders, I just can’t imagine why any (non-libertarian) group of party actors would take on that battle.
I understand the math: It’s a large field and Paul is more or less guaranteed to get 20 percent of the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire. All he needs then is to exceed his father’s performance by a few thousand voters and he could easily capture those early states against a splintered group of Republicans. That’s an illusion. There probably won’t be a dozen candidates in Iowa; Republicans have efficiently winnowed their field pre-Iowa for several cycles. But it doesn’t matter; even if Paul wins with 25 percent of the vote in Iowa, he’s not going to win the nomination unless he can eventually reach more than 50 percent. And as long as a substantial clot of party actors opposes his candidacy and most of the rest are indifferent at best, he’s not going to get the favorable publicity he needs to do that.
Ed Kilgore thinks Bernstein is perhaps being a big too dismissive:
I’d say it’s always a good idea to show some healthy respect for the unpredictable aspects of politics, especially in intraparty contests. I, too, have a hard time envisioning Rand Paul accepting the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. But his successful maneuvering on foreign policy so far makes it a lot more possible than ever, and I’m sure there were political scientists who laughed and laughed at the idea this loopy dude would beat Mitch McConnell’s hand-picked Senate candidate in 2010.
Kilgore is correct when it points out just how unpredictable the 2016 Republican Presidential fight is likely to be, a point I made myself just yesterday in a different context, however I think the doubts that Bernstein expresses are well-placed. To some degree, many of the reasons that Paul has ended up at the top of the list that Cillizza and Blake created is because it is still very early in the race for the nomination, so early in fact that we’re still basically talking hypothetically in terms of who will be running against who. While the number of potential Republican candidates is quite large at the moment, it seems improbable that all of those candidates will actually end up running for office. Many of them are likely to decide that it is not the right time for them to enter a national race, some will likely decide as Mitch Daniels did in 2012 that they don’t wish to put themselves and their families through the ordeal of national campaign, and still others are likely to base their decision on whether or not they will run on what other people do. One candidate that clearly belongs in that last category, for example, is Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who by all accounts will likely defer a Presidential run if his political mentor Jeb Bush decides to run. Finally, more than a few of the candidates who enter the race in 2015 will drop out or fade away to irrelevance as the year goes on. So, to the extent that the argument in favor of someone like Rand Paul being considered a front-runner because he would be among the more well-organized candidates with the most passionate supporters in a crowded field, it’s worth keeping in mind that, by the time the rubber meets the road a year from now and we’re looking at the Iowa Caucuses being two months away there will likely be only a core of truly viable candidates at the top of the field and then a bunch of also-rans. Paul would seem to be in a far weaker position in that kind of environment than Cillizza and Blake are assuming he is at the present moment.
The other issue facing Senator Paul, of course, is the fact that he may well be peaking too early. We are some fourteen months away from the first contest in the 2016 Presidential race and there is much that will happen between now and then. There will be plenty of opportunities for voters to get to know all of the candidates, including Senator Paul, and much of that process will be out of the control of the candidate, The media will scrutinize every utterance and stump speech, as will the other candidates. Negative attacks will ensue. Even the best run campaign will make mistakes along the way. How Paul or any other candidate will fare throughout this process is an unknown at this point, especially since, for the most part, Paul has not faced the negative campaigning that he is likely to see from his probable opponents, who will likely focus on his positions on everything from foreign policy, to foreign aid and Israel, to the War On Drugs in an effort to undermine his campaign. This effort will be even more intense if Paul continues to be considered the front runner that Cillizza and Blake see him to be, since it’s the front runner that every other candidate will be aiming for at nearly every opportunity. So far, we haven’t seen Paul under the barrage of negative campaigning outside of his campaign for the Senate, so there’s no way of knowing how it might impact him as a candidate. However, given the fact that Paul is largely out of step with the base of the GOP on foreign policy and other issues, it strikes me that any campaign that emphasizes his position on those issues could be quite effective.
There’s no doubt that Rand Paul is an interesting politician. Speaking personally, he’s perhaps the only truly appealing potential candidate in the 2016 field even though I have serious problems with his positions on social issues in several cases. Notwithstanding that, though, the idea that even today he is the Republican front runner, or that it would be smart to put money on him being at the top of the pack when the race for the GOP nomination is over, seems to be something of a pipe dream to me. In the end, the Presidential nomination process in the Republican Party is designed in a way that it typically ends with a candidate who can best be described as center-right with strong ties to the business community being the nominee. At present, I don’t see Rand Paul being the person who makes it through the process based on that criteria. Indeed, once the big guns in the party start taking aim at him I think it’s possible that he could end up fading rather quickly from the scene in the face of unrelenting criticism. It’s also likely that there will be stumbles along the way that will hurt the campaign. Given all of that, it seems rather pre-mature to call Rand Paul of all people a “front runner,” and even if that assessment is true then we’re likely to find that, like many candidates before him, Senator Paul will end up having peaked far too early.