Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has inherited his father Ron's impressive Internet organizing and fundraising network. He has nothing to lose by launching -- early -- a campaign for president in 2016. At the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), he won the straw poll of nearly 3,000 attendees, with 25 percent of the vote, besting Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). Not too surprising since Paul's father, Ron, won the CPAC straw polls in 2010 and 2011. It will be interesting to watch how fast the Rand Paul 2016 Facebook page grows -- it's now at 807,454 "likes," compared to 454,823 "likes" for Marco Rubio's Facebook page.
If nothing else, expressing interest early makes Paul the de facto leader of the libertarian and Tea Party wings of the Republican Party. In a crowded field, he'd have a good chance of winning the early Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, making him a strong contender, Guardian blogger Harry Enten observes.
Paul won plaudits even from liberals for his 13-hour filibuster against President Obama's domestic drone policy, and for his advocacy of significant cuts in defense spending.
Traditional hawks like the editorialists for The Wall Street Journal, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have mocked Paul for showboating. Paul's filibuster was a "stunt" to "fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms," McCain charged. "We've done, I think, a disservice to a lot of Americans by making them believe that somehow they're in danger from their government. They're not," he said. "But we are in danger from a dedicated ... enemy that is hell bent on our destruction."
To become a majority party again, the Republicans will have to unite anti-government Tea Party libertarians, who detested the 2008 government bailouts of banks, and Wall Street, which gladly accepted the bailouts. The party will have to decide whether to take a consistent, principled free market approach or whether it simply favors, as the Bush administration demonstrated, huge deficit spending, crony capitalism, "socialism for the rich and brutal capitalism for the poor."
It will also have to unite the internationalists and neo-cons, who strongly favored the Iraq war and want to hike defense spending before cutting the deficit, with the neo-isolationists, like Paul, who are disillusioned with aggressive American action in Iraq and Afghanistan and prefer to slash defense spending.
Whether the Republican Party can bring these contradictory factions together will be one of the great political questions of 2016. At this stage it seems a libertarian like Paul could engender passion among a core group of ideologues and do well in certain primary and caucus states. But it's doubtful he could garner a majority of Republican primary votes without severely compromising his principals. He opposes the income tax, and would eliminate Medicaid. He has taken domestic positions in favor of marijuana legalization, in opposition to civil rights -- opposing the Violence Against Women Act and going so far as to say business owners have a right to refuse service to customers on the basis of race. "Paul's libertarian streak ends on same-sex marriage and abortion. Paul is against both. Americans are for both," Enten points out.
I've suggested before that both the Tea Party Movement on the right and the Occupy Wall Street movement on the left originate from the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, the financial crash and bailouts of 2008/9, and loss of confidence in the financial elites and the political establishment. They might unite around an agenda of breaking up the big banks, ending corporate welfare, ending the war on drugs, restricting both corporate and government surveillance, opposing Internet censorship, demanding more transparency and fairness in the financial system. That's a good agenda for the next few years.
If Paul could help enact it and unify libertarian impulses on both the right and left -- he might have a chance to actually win as either a Republican nominee or as a third party candidate in a general election. He'd probably have to drop his opposition to gay marriage and abortion, positions inconsistent with libertarianism.
In an insightful article, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner point to ways the Republican Party can modernize, "How to Save the Republican Party."
Both Paul and Rubio are up for re-election in 2016, so they both could be forced to decide early whether to run for re-election or run for president. It's a gamble, as Senator John Edwards (D-NC) discovered when he started grooming for a presidential run just two years after winning his Senate seat, and announced he would not seek re-election 16 months before his seat was up in 2004. Constituents back home resented his decision, thinking he never really intended to serve them, but only his own ambitions. He never secured his base in North Carolina, and his popularity in the state waned. Years on the road also took a psychological toll. Eventually, his promising career -- and his marriage -- were completely destroyed.
Edwards provides a cautionary tale for both Paul and Rubio.