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Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) during his speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., March 7, 2014. (DREW ANGERER/NYT)
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) during his speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., March 7, 2014. (DREW ANGERER/NYT)

U.S. POLITICS

Rand Paul must prove he has right stuff if he’s looking at a run for the White House Add to ...

When the votes for the next U.S. president are tallied 2 1/2 years from now, history may show that it was on Feb. 20, 2014, that Rand Paul, the junior Republican senator from Kentucky, took a crucial step toward the White House.

That was the day the 51-year-old libertarian called out Ted Nugent, a right-wing rock musician whose racist views have been tolerated by some in the populist Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. While campaigning for a politician in Texas, Mr. Nugent described President Barack Obama as a “subhuman mongrel.”

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Many shrugged off the remark as “Ted being Ted,” but Mr. Paul was quick to respond: “Ted Nugent’s derogatory description of President Obama is offensive and has no place in politics. He should apologize.”

Mr. Paul faces enormous challenges should he run for president. A political outsider and first-term senator, he must prove his credentials to a Republican Party divided between libertarians, religious social conservatives, economic conservatives and defence hawks.

Because of its divisions the party often opts for the least offensive candidate, someone such as Bob Dole in 1996, or Mitt Romney, who was the last one standing in a knock-down nomination battle in 2012. Mr. Romney couldn’t win the election against Mr. Obama, however, because a lot of those religious conservatives refused to vote for him.

These days the talk is that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or former Florida governor Jeb Bush could pose the greatest challenge to a Paul nomination.

Even if he got the nomination of this conservative, largely white party, Mr. Paul must win over independents and marginal democratic voters in a general election. This is why Mr. Paul is telling his party and its influential Tea Partiers to lose their prejudices.

“We have to reach out to more people, more than just those of us here,” he told the Tea Party in February, looking out at the mostly white crowd.

The reprimand was noticed. “By decrying Nugent, Paul proves once again that he gets it,” wrote Wesley Lowery in the Washington Post’s political column The Fix.

And it shows. The youthful Mr. Paul, who resembles what comic-book teenager Archie would look like in his 50s, has consistently been scoring high in Republican polls.

“Rand Paul is the 2016 Republican front-runner,” wrote Daily Beast columnist Peter Beinart. “On issues from NSA surveillance to drug legalization to gay marriage, the GOP is moving in his direction.”

Indeed Mr. Paul was a rock star at the Conservative Political Action Convention (CPAC) outside Washington last week. Hundreds lined up to get him to sign copies of his latest book; he drew the biggest, most enthusiastic audience for his remarks and won the presidential straw poll with three times as many votes as his nearest competitor.

People loved his denouncing a president who approved the use of unmanned aircraft to kill even U.S. citizens abroad and who allows the National Security Agency to monitor the cellphones of millions of Americans. “What you do on your cell phone is none of their damn business,” he told the cheering crowd.

Mr. Paul heads next to the liberal hotbed of the University of California at Berkeley to see how his campaign to protect personal freedoms fares with the left.

Speaking on Fox News last Sunday, Mr. Paul said the issue of NSA surveillance resonates strongly with younger voters. There is a real opportunity, he said, “to attract young people and bring that energy into our party.”

Mr. Paul’s outreach has included appearances at predominantly black universities such as Howard and Simmons College of Kentucky. As a result he’s been invited to address the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

He even has partnered with the Obama administration’s Attorney-General Eric Holder, to promote criminal justice reform in reducing the prison sentences of non-violent drug offenders.

“The war on drugs has had a disproportionate effect on people of colour,” Mr. Paul said last month, referring to racial discrepancies in the enforcement of drug laws. “I’m not for legalizing any of this stuff, [but] let’s try to make sure it’s fair.”

He recently urged the Republican establishment to expand its interests beyond balanced budgets and lower taxes. “Why don’t we be the party that has some compassion for people that aren’t being treated fairly by the criminal justice system?” he asked.

“Paul is an up-and-comer,” said Bill Schneider, the long-time political analyst at CNN, now a scholar at Third Way, a Washington think tank. “He’s definitely attracting a lot of people.”

But while young people may like his position on drones, NSA surveillance and reforming drug laws, Mr. Schneider said, he still must overcome his libertarian reputation if he’s to be a serious national candidate.

Social conservatives, for example, are a big factor among Republicans, and they often clash with libertarians who sometimes prize freedom over God’s laws.

“Social conservatives can’t win an election for you,” said Mr. Schneider, “but they can make sure you lose one if they don’t like you.”

This could pose a problem for Mr. Paul who has adopted a laissez faire position regarding gay marriage. He said on Friday the Republican Party must find a place for young people who don’t want to be confined by traditional marriage.

Lynchburg, Va., three hours southwest of Washington, is a bastion of social conservatism. This is where the late preacher Rev. Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority, a movement that was instrumental in supporting Ronald Reagan in 1980. Liberty University, Mr. Falwell’s creation, is said to be the biggest Christian college in the country.

People at Liberty don’t like Mr. Paul’s position on gay marriage but, says Ron Miller, associate dean of the Helms School of Government, “there are a lot of things we do agree on.”

Mr. Paul’s opposition to abortion and his support for the right to bear arms were at the top of the list. He added they also agree on freedom of school choice and opposition to government intrusion.

“Everything else we can live with,” said Mr. Miller. “We can agree to disagree,” for the sake of winning the election.

Mr. Paul also draws fire from his association with his father, Ron Paul, a long-time congressman from Texas and a more extreme libertarian who twice ran for president himself. Ron Paul wanted the United States not to be involved in any foreign wars. He was a true isolationist, an anathema to the party’s hawks.

Rand Paul “has to avoid the Barry Goldwater syndrome,” said Mr. Schneider. He can’t afford to be branded an extremist as Mr. Goldwater was, as the Republicans’ 1964 presidential candidate.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan, another controversial conservative, showed how to do it. He won election by appealing to a wide range of people, even working class Democrats.

Many already have branded Rand Paul an “isolationist” bent on avoiding foreign wars. That notion does not sit well with party hawks who believe the United States should assert its power and shape the policies of foreign states to fit U.S. interests.

In a January address to the Center for the National Interest, whose board includes Republican icons Henry Kissinger and James Schlesinger, Mr. Paul attempted to position himself between the hawks and his father. He described himself as a “realist,” and allowed that “dialogue is nearly always preferable to war.” The speech was widely praised.

The current crisis in Crimea, however, is a good test for the balance he tried to strike.

At first Mr. Paul criticized some U.S. political leaders for being “stuck in the Cold War” for threatening Russia as it prepared to invade the pro-Russian Ukrainian peninsula.

Later, post-invasion, he joined the hawks and argued Russia should be “economically isolated” until it “respect[s] the rights of free people everywhere.” His apparent waffling drew criticism.

But Republicans too are torn.

“Say what you want about Rand Paul,” Peter Beinart wrote this week: “He’s trying to learn from the disasters of the Bush years.”

“It’s just possible,” he wrote, “that 2016 could be another 1964 or 1980, years when the Republican establishment proved weak and pliable enough to allow a candidate previously considered extreme to come in from the cold.”

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