Next time Rand Paul sees his fellow Republican Senate freshman Ted Cruz, he should give the Texan a big wet kiss. There was a time not that long ago when the mere suggestion of Paul as a possible 2016 presidential nominee sent chills down the spines of many mainstream and moderate Republicans who saw the Kentuckian as a sure thing to drag the party down in the next election. But Cruz has redefined extremism in the Republican Party to such an extent that Rand Paul doesn’t come across as such a dangerous fringe candidate anymore. The truth is that Republican Senate insiders say that they have been pleasantly surprised by Paul, who makes a point of sitting with or near his fellow Kentuckian, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and, while not compromising his ideology, seems to be trying to get along with his fellow GOP colleagues. He seems to be a pretty fast learner and more pragmatic than many predicted. Conversely, longtime Capitol Hill observers are struggling to recall a freshman who alienated as many members as Cruz has — in both the Senate and the House, among both Republicans and Democrats — in such a short period of time. One wag remarked this week that if this were junior high school, Cruz would find himself stuffed in a locker nearly every day. He has yet to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable.
Double-open presidential elections, meaning ones without a sitting president seeking reelection, are often defining or potentially redefining events for their parties. The lack of an incumbent gives each party the opportunity to have a fresh start; they get to choose what they want to look like, who they are. Given the historical tendency of Republicans to be a hierarchical party, they usually nominate whoever it is whose turn it is to be the party’s standard-bearer, usually a current or former vice president or presidential contender. But Republicans will enter the 2016 campaign without an obvious or natural successor, so they really are starting from scratch. Nobody enters this contest with an upper hand.
It was clear that last year Republicans wanted a very, very, very conservative nominee. Indeed, the GOP exhausted every conceivable alternative before settling on Mitt Romney to be their candidate. Actually there were some pretty inconceivable front-runners at various points in the process. The GOP’s clear preference was for someone significantly more conservative than Romney, but the options all seemed pretty badly flawed or drew from too narrow a base, so they eventually gave in and reluctantly nominated the former Massachusetts governor.
Logic would suggest that the challenge for Republicans would be to find someone sufficiently conservative to unify the party and secure the party’s nomination, yet still be broadly acceptable enough to be electable in a national general election. However, as reasonable as that may be to some of us, it is not so obvious to others. Republicans’ choice of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Democrats’ choice of George McGovern in 1972 seemed to reflect more of a “if it feels good, do it” mantra than a strictly pragmatic approach to winning the White House. Goldwater’s famous line from his nomination acceptance speech that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” would find many in the party nodding in agreement. Both Goldwater and McGovern flamed out in a spectacular fashion, but their defeats in both cases triggered a move back toward the middle for their party with a victorious result four years later. Sometimes a party has to hit rock bottom before it can shake off a really bad idea.
My competitor and close friend Stuart Rothenberg has written recently comparing where Republicans are today with where Democrats were in the late 1980s. Having lost three consecutive presidential elections, the party was finally convinced that it needed to move toward the center, with the Democratic Leadership Council and its former chairman, Bill Clinton, leading the way to victory in 1992. The Democratic base wasn’t that happy about it, but it sure got them the White House for two terms and the most popular votes in three consecutive elections. It could be that Republicans have to lose one more time to get this out of their system, if in fact losing three times in a row is required to do the trick.
Conservatives are very proud of the fact that there are more of them than there are liberals; in the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 38 percent identified themselves as conservative, compared with just 24 percent who called themselves liberal. But 36 percent call themselves moderate, and exit polls showed that this moderate group voted for Barack Obama over Romney by a 15-point margin. While independents did vote for Romney over Obama by 5 points, the fact is that the share of voters who still call themselves Republicans has dropped so much that Romney — and congressional Republicans, for that matter — can win the independent vote and still lose the national popular vote. In the newest NBC/WSJ poll, conducted by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff, the party-identification split showed that there is now a 12-point gap between the parties: 33 percent call themselves Democrats, 21 percent Republicans, and now 41 percent independents. With the gap between the parties growing so wide, winning a majority of independents is necessary but no longer sufficient for Republicans to win nationally. With a gap this wide, a GOP nominee would have to win independents by a heck of a lot more than 5 points to win a general election.
My hunch today is that the more visible Ted Cruz is over the next two and a half years, the more acceptable Rand Paul will appear to Republicans who are true to their conservative principles but would still like to win the presidency.