Rand Paul: Contender or Curiosity?

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks to students during a discussion on criminal justice reform at Bowie State University, in B
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks to students during a discussion on criminal justice reform at Bowie State University, in Bowie, Md., Friday, March 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

What are the chances that Sen. Rand Paul will get elected President next year? Look at it this way: Sen. Paul's is running for re-election to the Senate at the same time he is running for President. That doesn't show a lot of confidence in his presidential prospects.

Paul is more of a curiosity than a contender. He's trying to maintain his libertarian creds and at the same time reassure conservatives that he really is one of them. His explicit objective is to change the Republican Party so that it can be competitive in the New America. Paul's goal is to bring in more minorities, more young people and more poor people. "Those of us who have enjoyed the American dream must break down the wall that separates us from the other America,'' Paul said on Tuesday. The problem is, conservatives have spent a lot of time building that wall.

Nominations are controlled by partisans, and you're not likely to win their favor by telling them what's wrong with their party. John McCain tried to do that when he first ran for the Republican nomination in 2000. It didn't work.

Paul calls himself a conservative, but his views on a number of issues are suspect to the conservative establishment. Like military intervention and government surveillance and criminal justice reform. Paul has tried to mend fences with conservatives, but the more he does that, the more he alienates the libertarian base he inherited from his father. He has reassured Christian conservatives that he is opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage. That won't sit well with many libertarians and may limit his appeal to women and to young people.

The only way Paul can get the Republican nomination is by bringing in huge numbers of new primary voters to overwhelm Republican regulars. And the only way to do that is by stirring their passion. Diluting the message won't help.

Still, Paul is likely to do well in several of the early contests. Iowa and Nevada are caucus states. The Rand Paul people are enthusiasts. They're the kinds of people who stay until the ends of meetings. They know how to dominate low-turnout caucuses (as well as the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference, which Paul has won two years in a row).

New Hampshire may also be a bright spot for Paul. His father came in second to Mitt Romney in the 2012 New Hampshire Republican primary. There are a lot of libertarians up there in the mountains. The state's official motto is, "Live free or die.'' New Hampshire allows Independents to vote in the Republican primary, which they are likely to do if there is not much of a race on the Democratic side. Independents include a lot of young voters and libertarians.

Suppose Paul shakes up the GOP as Pat Robertson did in Iowa in 1988 and Pat Buchanan did in New Hampshire in 1996. The empire will strike back. Establishment Republicans don't want loony libertarians in their board rooms or their country clubs.

Paul claims he is running against "the Washington machine that gobbles up our freedoms and invades every nook and cranny of our lives.'' Running against Washington has a long and impressive history in presidential politics. But it usually works for Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, all of whom were plucked from obscurity. There's an old political joke: Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line.

With Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, running against Washington means running against Republicans as well as Democrats. No problem for Sen. Paul. He said on Tuesday that "when Republicans won, we've squandered our victory by becoming part of the Washington machine.'' That is not music to the ears of Republican partisans.

Moreover, some of Paul's peculiar views are likely to haunt his campaign. He has supported the right of parents to refuse to vaccinate their children (Paul is an eye doctor by profession). He called the Ebola virus "incredibly contagious'' and said you could get it by attending a cocktail party -- something denied by both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and by world health authorities. He has spooked financial authorities by calling for an audit of the Federal Reserve and a commission to study returning to the gold standard.

But it is his foreign policy views that present the biggest hurdle. Republican hawks are deeply suspicious of Paul's isolationist past and his hostility to military intervention, foreign aid and government surveillance. One group is already spending $1 million on ads that say, "Rand Paul is wrong and dangerous.''

Here's a prediction. In the unlikely event that Rand Paul wins the Republican nomination, John McCain will endorse Hillary Clinton for President.