In the Labor Day weekend scramble set off by President Obama’s zero-hour about-face on Syria, the only visible politician in Washington who knew just what he wanted to say and said it was the junior senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul. Appearing after John Kerry on Meet the Press that Sunday, Paul reminded viewers of Kerry’s famous Vietnam-era locution, then said he would like to ask him a question of his own: “How can you ask a man to be the first one to die for a mistake?”
There were no surprises in Paul’s adamant opposition to a military strike. But after a chaotic week of White House feints and fumbles accompanied by vamping and vacillation among leaders in both parties, the odd duck from Kentucky emerged as an anchor of principle, the signal amid the noise. Paul’s constancy was particularly conspicuous in contrast to his presumed Republican presidential rivals in 2016, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, and Ted Cruz. Though each of them had waxed hawkish about Syria in the past—in Rubio’s case, just the week before—they held their fire over Labor Day weekend, stuck their fingers to the pollsters’ wind, and then more or less fell in with Paul’s noninterventionist bottom line once they emerged. It’s not the first time that Paul had proved the leader of the pack in which he was thought to be the joker.
This has been quite a year for Paul. Not long ago, he was mainly known as the son of the (now retired) gadfly Texas congressman Ron Paul, the perennial presidential loser who often seemed to have wandered into GOP-primary debates directly from an SNL sketch. Like his father, Rand Paul has been dismissed by most Democrats as a tea-party kook and by many grandees in his own party as a libertarian kook; the Republican Establishment in his own state branded him “too kooky for Kentucky” in his first bid for public office. Now BuzzFeed has anointed him “the de facto foreign policy spokesman for the GOP”—a stature confirmed when he followed Obama’s prime-time speech on the Syrian standoff with a televised mini-address of his own.
But even before an international crisis thrust him center stage, Paul had become this year’s most compelling and prescient political actor. His ascent began in earnest in March with the Twitter-certified #standwithrand sensation of his Ayn Rand and Gabriel García Márquez. He has, in the words of Rich Lowry of National Review, “that quality that can’t be learned or bought: He’s interesting.” In that sense, he’s kind of a Eugene McCarthy of the right, destined to shake things up without necessarily reaping the rewards for himself.
Though he has been at or near the top of near-meaningless early primary polling, he is nonetheless a long shot to ascend to the top of the GOP ticket, let alone to the White House. And a good thing too: A Paul presidency would be a misfortune for the majority of Americans who would be devastated by his regime of minimalist government. But as we begin to imagine a post-Obama national politics where the Democratic presidential front-runners may be of Social Security age and the Republicans lack a presumptive leader or a coherent path forward, he can hardly be dismissed. Nature abhors a vacuum, and Paul doesn’t hide his ambitions to fill it. In his own party, he’s the one who is stirring the drink, having managed in his very short political career (all of three years) to have gained stature in spite of (or perhaps because of) his ability to enrage and usurp such GOP heavyweights as John McCain, Mitch McConnell, and Chris Christie. He is one of only two putative presidential contenders in either party still capable of doing something you don’t expect or saying something that hasn’t been freeze-dried into anodyne Frank Luntz–style drivel by strategists and focus groups. The other contender in the spontaneous-authentic political sweepstakes is Christie, but like an actor who’s read too many of his rave reviews, he’s already turning his bully-in-a-china-shop routine into Jersey shtick. (So much so that if he modulates it now, he’ll come across as a phony.) Paul doesn’t do shtick, he rarely engages in sound bites or sloganeering, and his language has not been balled up by a stint in law school or an M.B.A. program. (He’s an ophthalmologist.) He speaks as if he were thinking aloud and has a way of making his most radical notions sound plausible in the moment. It doesn’t hurt that some of what he says also makes sense.