Among libertarian circles, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is like royalty. On the one hand, being the son of long-time libertarian icon Ron Paul, the senator has the feeling of an heir apparent; on the other hand, having been swept into office by the Tea Party wave of 2010, Rand Paul has also radiated the sort of rebellious insurgency that can electrify a crowd on the campaign trail. Despite his relatively short time on the national stage, Sen. Paul has become a widely-recognized politician, and one of the top tier potential candidates for his party’s presidential nomination in 2016. According to a recent RealClearPolitics polling average, Paul is in third place in the Republican presidential horse race, behind only New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former Florida governor Jeb Bush. This is perhaps the ideal political position for the Kentucky senator; he doesn’t have the target on his back that a frontrunner would, while the current frontrunners in the GOP race have significant liabilities, like “Bridgegate” and the Bush family name. And Sen. Paul doesn’t seem content to rely only on his father’s base at the far-flung fringes of the Republican Party; Politico wrote that Paul “has made a concerted move from the political fringes over the past year; now he’s on a mission to remake his party, too.”
And yet, it’s this very “move from the political fringes” that may prove politically problematic for Sen. Paul. In 2010, he won office in part due to an unwavering commitment to “principles,” and now, Paul’s observers are noting changes in the senator’s political positions that are more than just slight. In 2012 GOP primary, eventual nominee Mitt Romney faced criticism for what many perceived as “flip-flopping”; is Rand Paul setting himself up for similar problems?
First, Sen. Paul seems to have drifted away from his original libertarian, noninterventionist foreign policy positions. In September, Benjy Sarlin of msnbc.com wrote that “after expressing reluctance to intervene against ISIS over the summer, Sen. Rand Paul abruptly shifted gears…and announced that he supports military action to eliminate the Islamist group.” This sudden change of position on a crucial foreign policy issue may indicate Sen. Paul’s evolving sentiments in the short run, but what about as he prepares for a potential presidential bid? Olivia Nuzzi at The Daily Beast reported last month that Paul’s circle of foreign policy advisors are certainly less than dovish; former staffers of Ronald Reagan, Condoleezza Rice, and John McCain are included on the team. And the senator’s quick flip on ISIS might seriously undermine his image as an uncompromising man of principle; Nuzzi also wrote that “it’s no surprise that Paul’s many critics pounced on his position that America should do everything in its power to combat ISIS. To them, it seemed like something of a 180.” At the same time, it would be inaccurate to characterize Sen. Paul as a “new hawk” or an “establishment Republican” on issues of foreign policy. Robert Draper of The New York Times Magazine wrote the following about Rand Paul’s relationship with his party on foreign affairs:
“If Paul’s foreign-policy addresses have more in common with the realism espoused by Robert Gates, a former defense secretary, than with his father’s laissez-faire approach to the outside world, his worldview nonetheless marks a clear breach from the hawkishness that still predominates within the Republican Party.”
Yet, beyond just foreign policy, is Rand Paul giving his own political ideology a complete renovation? Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist, wrote for cnn.com in August that Sen. Paul “is giving people whiplash. In the past month, he has shifted, flip-flopped and pandered so strikingly on a range of positions and statements that it makes you wonder whether he has suddenly developed a deep disregard for his own convictions, or never had any to begin with.” Now, keep in mind that Cardona has a particularly partisan motive with regard to Rand Paul; she is, after all, a Democratic strategist. But consider this passage from David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post about the senator’s various position changes over the years:
“Sen. Paul wanted to eliminate aid to Israel. Now he doesn’t. He wanted to scrap the Medicare system. Now he’s not sure. He didn’t like the idea of a border fence – it was expensive, and it reminded him of the Berlin Wall. Now he wants two fences, one behind the other.”
Clearly, Paul has been prompted to change his positions on various issues in order to increase his own political liability. But what about the senator’s previous stances was so unappetizing? Simon Maloy at Salon wrote in August that “of course, Rand Paul has learned what libertarians have known ever since the movement began: People tend not to vote for libertarians…if Rand Paul has ‘crossover’ appeal, it’s not because he espouses libertarian positions – it’s because he’s purging himself of his own principles.”
And herein lies a crucial problem with Rand Paul’s political evolution; in addition to changing his positions, the senator seems to completely reject the idea that he had ever thought otherwise. Msnbc.com‘s Benjy Sarlin wrote that “when challenged on politically difficult positions Paul has shown a tendency not only to take a new position, but to deny the old one ever existed. Recently, fact checkers excoriated him for inaccurately claiming he had never supported ending aid to Israel.” This tendency described by Sarlin is incredibly dangerous for Sen. Paul, who won office in part because of his willingness to challenge the conventional wisdom in Washington. Fahrenthold argued that “as Rand Paul seeks to broaden his appeal, he may damage his image as an authentic non-politician who is unafraid to stand up for his beliefs.”
Does all of this mean that Rand Paul, should he choose to run for president, will face all of the same criticisms for his flip-flopping that Mitt Romney did in 2012? There are a few key factors that would make a Paul 2016 campaign different from the Romney 2012 campaign. The first is simple: Rand Paul does not enjoy the same sole frontrunner status that Mitt Romney did in 2012. The second: Mitt Romney may not have excited the Republican establishment over his candidacy, but Sen. Paul will have to do far more work to convince mainstream GOP voters, donors, and leaders to back his presidential bid. The third, and most important: Romney was never perceived by Republican voters as principled, unwavering, uncompromising; Paul rode that image right into office. This leaves the senator from Kentucky attempting to satisfy all sides as he tries to build support for a 2016 campaign. Last year, Julia Ioffe wrote in New Republic that “Paul may be working assiduously to tailor his message to constituencies unfamiliar to the modern GOP, but he also makes sure not to neglect the most ardent members of his base.” This year, Sen. Paul is walking the same tightrope. The question is whether or not this evolving politician can continue his political balancing act past a Republican primary and into November of 2016.