Rand Paul is a pleasant man with an impish grin and a head of permanently tousled curls. And, by presidential standards, he is on the short side, at 5 feet 8 inches, which for the moment adds to his my-mother-dressed-me-this-morning look.
The Kentucky senator, who formally announced his presidential campaign Tuesday, may be counting on his likability to buy him time to make a coherent whole of his myriad parts. He is attempting to merge his iconoclastic self, the Tea Party persona that brought him to Washington and his familial libertarianism, even as he tries to draw the establishment and social-conservative wings of the party he needs to win a few primaries.
It’s working and it isn’t. He is on the short list of candidates to take seriously, but sooner or later he will have to choose who he loves most. Is it the libertarians he grew up with as the son of the anti-government, anti-defense serial presidential candidate Ron Paul? Or those on the left and students entranced by his unorthodox positions on criminal justice, privacy, drug law liberalization, small defense and isolationism?
At the same time, he has to woo the base if he is going to be a serious contender. His rush to pander to parents who don’t want the government to force them to vaccinate their children was ugly to the larger electorate but it helped him win the annual presidential straw poll of the Conservative Political Action Conference for the third time.
Last week showed how tough it is going to be for Paul to be all things to all Republican voters. He was the artful dodger on two very hot issues. While the other candidates were attacking President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and siding with Indiana on its religious freedom law, Paul was officially on vacation and unavailable to comment.
But now, as an official candidate, he can no longer avoid the fray. Just look at his travel schedule for coming weeks.
He will find sympathetic souls in New Hampshire, where living free or dying has a long tradition and anyone can vote in the primary. The welcome won’t be as warm in South Carolina, where the military is next to godliness. To show that he isn’t necessarily his dovish father’s son, Paul has picked the USS Yorktown, a World War II battleship in Charleston Harbor, as the backdrop for a speech on national security.
Not so long ago, Paul might have been able to finesse his defense credentials. He had sympathizers in a country weary after more than a decade of war. But now that the Republican Party has returned to its hawkish roots after being subjected to the gory provocations of the Islamic State and the shirtless saber-rattling of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Paul is playing reverse political Twister. He is trying to get a foot out of all camps, with the challenge of distancing himself both from Obama’s hated deal with Iran and the bellicosity of the likes of Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who seem to want to fight all comers.
All of this shape-shifting threatens to turn him into the very thing he claims to stand against with the campaign slogan he unveiled Tuesday: “Defeat the Washington machine. Unleash the American dream.”
Meanwhile, well-funded conservative hawks were already taking up arms against him, airing negative ads (Rand Paul is dangerous) before he could finish his announcement: “I am running for president to return our country to the principles of liberty and limited government.”
Paul has had a checkered record since coming to Washington. If his 12-hour, 52-minute filibuster to force the administration to clarify when it would use drones was a high point of his early days, there were several low ones before and after, including questioning the wisdom of the Civil Rights act, authoring a bill to legalize interstate traffic in unpasteurized milk, putting forward a doomsday budget and showing a thin skin after being exposed for lifting the work of others in a quickie book.
He’s supposed to be the gentler, kinder Ted Cruz, the one you’d want to do shots of Kentucky bourbon with, yet he petulantly challenged his accusers to a duel, blamed staff, and then like a child threatening to take his ball and go home, said he would be perfectly happy returning to his ophthalmology practice in Bowling Green if people didn’t stop picking on him.
Paul’s been doing better on the optics. In an unpleasant, partisan Senate, he’s built legislative alliances with Democrats. He’s also made considerable efforts to bring in non-Republican voters among techies, entrepreneurs, young people and blacks, hoping to create what he calls a “leave-us-the-hell-alone coalition.”
He may well be right that Republicans need to build a bigger tent to reclaim the White House, or, as he said in March, that his ad hoc kind of Republicanism may be the party’s best chance of defeating Hillary Clinton in purple states. But that’s a long ways away. For now, he has to persuade core Republican primary voters to wheel his Trojan horse into their smaller tent.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.