Rand Paul’s 2016 evolution

Greg Nash

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is taking steps to shore up his perceived political vulnerabilities ahead of a possible presidential run in 2016. 

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Paul’s presidential hopes is his foreign policy outlook, which gives heartburn to national-security conservatives who advocate a muscular American presence abroad.

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In the past, the libertarian senator has called for the ending of U.S. foreign aid, including to Israel, and is adamantly opposed to further United States engagement in Iraq. He is also associated, fairly or otherwise, with the strident isolationism of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).

But Paul has been trying to tamp down those concerns. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, he sought to compare his foreign policy to that of President Reagan.

“I opposed the Iraq War. I thought we needed to be more prudent about the weightiest decision a country can make,” Paul wrote. “Like Reagan, I thought we should never be eager to go to war.”

Last week, Paul wrote another opinion column, this time for National Review, in which he reacted to the killing of three Israeli teenagers, allegedly by Hamas.

In the article, he referred scathingly to calls from the Obama administration for Israel to show restraint. 

“How many times must Israel hear this call? Children are murdered — please show restraint. Cafes and buses are bombed — please show restraint. Towns are victimized by hundreds of rockets — please show restraint while you bury your dead once again,” Paul wrote.

The tone of the piece attracted its fair share of criticism, including from those who suggested Paul was seeking to ingratiate himself with wealthy, pro-Israel Republican donors such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

“It’s a miserable, asinine piece of boilerplate designed, quite patently, to pander to the Adelson crowd,” wrote prominent blogger Andrew Sullivan.

Others, however, praised Paul and said his foreign policy views are maturing.

“I think he is sincere,” said Florida-based GOP strategist Rick Wilson. “I think people have educated him on Israel beyond the old ‘Ron Paul newsletter’ talking points. He has done a lot of good work on it.”

Still, Wilson added, for many Republicans “the proof is in the pudding.” It will take some time before they are wholly convinced of Paul’s foreign policy bona fides.

Misgivings about Paul in the GOP aren’t limited to international affairs.

Some Beltway political professionals worry that Paul could come undone, if he got even close to winning the nomination, by the very quirkiness that draws some supporters to him. Even though four years have passed since Paul was unclear on whether he would have supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act, memories of the furor are sharp.

Those kinds of discussions are “not the kind of debate you want to be having on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act,” said Dan Judy, a Republican consultant with North Star Opinion Research.

Paul does not seem interested in having that debate either. Last week, his office released a statement to mark the anniversary of the act, which included a quote from the senator: “This legislation changed the future of our nation by enforcing the belief that all men and women are created equal.”

More prosaically, Paul has also been trying to display an organizational seriousness about a 2016 run. Last week, he announced the hiring of Steve Grubbs, a former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, to advise his political action committee.

“For him to actually win the Iowa caucuses, he needs to run a traditional campaign that reaches out to traditional caucus-goers,” said Craig Robinson, himself a former political director of the Iowa GOP who now blogs at The Iowa Republican. “Grubbs understands the mechanics; he understands how to make the pitch and the sale to get those individuals. It’s a very smart hire.”

Robinson, added, however, that Paul could have a difficult time expanding his appeal without alienating core supporters.

“When he goes to the hawk side, it annoys his libertarian base, and when he pleases the libertarian base, maybe the social conservatives say, ‘We don’t necessarily agree.’ He has to choose at some point. He can’t have it both ways.”

Judy said the extent to which Paul can reassure Republican traditionalists while also expanding the GOP’s tent remains an open question.

“He has a long way to go with more traditional Republicans in order to be a comfortable vote choice for them,” Judy said. “He really does court the libertarian faction, which has a loud voice but is a relatively small part of the party.”

Despite all that, Robinson believes Paul is the current frontrunner in the battle for the GOP 2016 nomination. Recent polls bear that out: the Kentucky senator has topped at least two such surveys when Republican voters were given a list of possible 2016 contenders.

“I think a lot of people who used to see him as quirky are now looking at him as a serious and compelling figure,” said Mark McKinnon, the Republican strategist and ad maker who worked closely with President George W. Bush. 

“Bottom line is Rand Paul is no joke. If he runs in 2016, he's likely to ring up some important primary wins, if not the whole enchilada.”