Rand Paul's extraordinarily difficult path to the presidency

The Week
Matt K. Lewis

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Matt K. Lewis

Pleasing mainstream conservatives without alienating his libertarian base is much easier said than done

When Chris Wallace asked Sen. Rand Paul on Fox News Sunday how serious he was about making a real run for the presidency, Paul replied: "I would absolutely not run unless it were to win."

"We won't make a decision until 2014," Paul said, adding that he believes America is ready for a "libertarian Republican narrative."

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The path forward seems obvious. Paul must solidify his father's libertarian-leaning support, sprinkle in some mainstream conservative backers (folks his dad could never reach), and — voila! — he will have assembled a "libertarian-Republican" coalition capable of winning a decent slice of the primary electorate — maybe (in a large primary field) even enough to win Iowa, something his dad could never quite pull off.

In short, Rand Paul will attempt to position himself as a younger, saner, more broadly appealing Ron Paul.

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At first glance, this appears to be working well. But if you look below the surface, you'll see signs that it may be hard for Rand to have his cake and eat it, too.

To woo mainstream conservatives, Paul has had to clean up some of the problems he inherited from his father. It may not be fair that Sen. Paul has to overcome his father's positions to appeal to a broader swath of the electorate, but if he wants to be president, he will have to do so. In some cases, this is a fairly easy task. For example, after Ron Paul tweeted some controversial words about ex-Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, Rand issued his own statement calling Kyle a hero.

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Still, there are larger problems that are much harder to fix. Ron Paul's past positions on Israel, for example, coupled with the resurfacing of the elder Paul's anti-Semitic newsletters, presents a particularly thorny challenge.

Rand has tried hard to make inroads with the pro-Israel community — an important bridge to build, based on his father's past positions. He launched what has been described as an "overnight transformation into a pro-Israel defense hawk" — a process that included a trip to the Holy Land, and ultimately led to him to pledge that: "[A]ny attack on Israel will be treated as an attack on the United States."

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Indeed, Rand seemed to be threading the needle nicely until the last week or so, when he voted to not end debate on Chuck Hagel's secretary of defense nomination (and effectively guaranteed that our long national nightmare would continue for at least another week0.

Like the Pauls, Hagel presumably wants to oversee a more modest foreign policy. And like the Pauls, Hagel has been accused of failing to be sufficiently pro-Israel. Thus, in helping stall (or possibly even derail?) Hagel's confirmation, some saw Paul's move as an act of betrayal.

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In the case of the Hagel vote, Paul upset a strong segment of his noninterventionist base. "If Rand Paul persists on going demagogic on Hagel," wrote Scott McConnell of The American Conservative, "he will have established beyond any serious doubt that regardless of who his father is, he is Bill Kristol and Jennifer Rubin's boy."

That's harsh language, and some might even hear a dog whistle. Kristol and Rubin, of course, are Jewish, pro-Israel, pro-interventionist hawks — essentially poster children for the much-disdained neoconservative movement.

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But if Rand is trading his base for a more mainstream coalition, it's not as if Rand's efforts to woo over mainstream conservatives have gone perfectly, either. Despite his best efforts to invent a more palatable version of Paulism, Rand has occasionally given in to vestigial urges and reverted into fringe territory.

A prime example: During his much-ballyhooed speech at Heritage, Sen. Paul repeated the unsubstantiated claim that in the 1980s "Congress armed bin Laden."

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This is a highly disputed allegation, and one that FactCheck.org deemed an "urban myth." What's more, it is an assertion Paul has made on multiple occasions, meaning he didn't merely misspeak.

Aside from the questionable veracity of the statement (a legitimate factor in its own right), there are political problems here for the Kentucky senator. Is it really wise for a Republican to accuse the Reagan administration of arming bin Laden? That puts Paul into Michael Moore territory.

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On the heels of his Tea Party response to the State of the Union, it has become fashionable for pundits to announce that Rand Paul has a real shot at the nomination. But this doesn't appreciate the difficult maneuver Paul is attempting.

And it will only get harder once conservatives view him as a threat. Like a Rubik's cube, every move Rand makes in order to please one side or constituency has the potential to anger the other side.

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And the worst-case scenario is that he leaves everyone dissatisfied. 

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