Politics is always a risky business, with the odds of success the steepest for anyone running for president. So many factors have to line up just right to capture a nomination, and even then, the chances of winning the general election are roughly 50-50. But Sen. Rand Paul’s approach to running takes risk-taking to an entirely different and higher level.
Like his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, Rand Paul gets high marks for ideological originality. Most members of Congress and presidential candidates simply embrace either a liberal or a conservative agenda (in the past, a center-left or center-right approach worked), rarely straying far from that standard dogma. Simply knowing most lawmakers’ positions on one or two issues can let you pretty much predict where they are on many more. But with the Paul father and son, it is like each started off with a blank legal pad and constructed a custom ideology, incorporating libertarianism, populism, and a distinctly non-internationalist and noninterventionist approach to foreign policy.
While I do not think that Rand Paul’s ideology is poll-driven in any way and I believe that he comes by his views quite honestly, each of its elements make some political sense with certain voter groups. Given that, in 2012, GOP nominee Mitt Romney lost voters under 30 years of age by a whopping 23 points (Romney’s best group was those 65 years of age and older), Paul’s libertarian tendency has the potential to draw support from younger voters at a higher rate than Republicans in the past, particularly if Democrats nominate someone who would turn 70 in her first year as president.
Paul’s populist rhetoric is certainly in tune with a growing anti-establishment trend that we are seeing in both the Democratic Party (think Occupy Wall Street) and in the GOP (think tea party). While the health care reform fight of 2009 and 2010 certainly accelerated the development of the tea-party movement, its origins can be traced more to outrage over the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which many conservatives saw as too much government intervention into the private sector.
Paul’s approach to foreign policy and national security issues is similarly unorthodox in a party that, at least in modern times, has taken a muscular and hawkish approach. His stance could appeal to some who grew exceedingly weary during 11 years of continuous war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Paul is quick to deny that he is an isolationist, so we’ll just describe him as a non-internationalist and noninterventionist.
All three of these tendencies have constituencies in our politics, both inside and outside the Republican Party. But each one has the potential to alienate a large number of Republican voters and/or donors as well.
The libertarian approach is deeply offensive to many of the social, cultural, and religious conservatives who play such a heavy role in the GOP nomination process. “Live and let live” is not how they think. Paul’s noninterventionist stands drive away the neoconservatives (think the George W. Bush administration) as well as the more traditional internationalist wing, personified by Presidents Nixon and George H.W. Bush.
For that matter, Paul doesn’t sound that much like President Reagan either. The strong and growing pro-Israel constituency in the GOP, increasingly identifying with the conservative Likud faction of Israeli politics, has a natural antipathy toward Paul. One could almost see Sheldon Adelson handing over the keys to the White House to Hillary Clinton if the alternative is Rand Paul. His populism drives the establishment, Fortune 500, and Wall Street wing of the GOP nuts as well.
Paul’s libertarian rhetoric risks alienating conservative activists, while his foreign policy stance and populism may alienate large donors and potential super PAC sponsors as well.
But over the past few days, Paul’s fervent opposition to extension of certain surveillance related provisions in the Patriot Act amounts to a bigger danger. Polls show clearly that foreign policy and national security concerns are at the top of the agenda for GOP voters, just as the economy, jobs and income/wealth disparity are at the top for Democratic voters. But more importantly, if there were some kind of major terrorist event in the United States, something that could potentially have been uncovered by NSA surveillance, aggressive wiretaps, and meta-data collection, then Rand Paul will have some very serious explaining to do. While conservatives have a very real distrust of government, relatively few overlap much with the American Civil Liberties Union.
It should be noted, however, that while it is almost inevitable that the United States will be the target of a significant terrorist attack in the future, the odds of one happening in the next 17 months, between now and the November general election, are somewhat less. Many of the smartest minds in the intelligence and national security fields were convinced, just after the Sept. 11 attacks, that a major follow-up attack would be only a few months away. We obviously have not had one. Everyone hopes or prays that we will not have another. Rand Paul is betting the ranch that there isn’t going to be another anytime soon.