Paul’s independence from his party on national-security issues resembles his father’s, but he is careful to sand down the libertarian edges; he refuses to accept the label “isolationist,” calling himself a realist in the George Kennan mode and paying deference to the United Nations Security Council. He sounds more mainstream than his dad, and is. His fear that American missile strikes would serve mainly to pour still more oil on the fires of the Middle East is so prevalent in both parties that it was impossible for the liberal host of CNN’s Crossfire, Stephanie Cutter, to bait him into the hoped-for partisan fisticuffs on the revamped show’s debut episode. Paul can hit a bipartisan sweet spot on occasional domestic issues too. His push to reform mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders brought him an alliance with the liberal Democratic senator Patrick Leahy and has now been belatedly embraced by the attorney general, Eric Holder.
None of this means that Paul has any serious chance of appealing to centrist and liberal Democrats in significant numbers in a national campaign. He labors under most of the same handicaps as the rest of his party. He has no credible commitment to serious immigration reform. He is an absolutist on guns and abortion. He is opposed to gay marriage (though trying, like many Republicans these days, to keep the issue on the down-low). In a speech at the Reagan Library this year, he acknowledged that the Republican Party will not win again until it “looks like the rest of America,” but his own outreach efforts have been scarcely better than the GOP’s as a whole. His game appearance at the historically black Howard University backfired when he tried to pretend that he had never “wavered” in his support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 even though his recent wavering was a matter of public record, captured on video.
While Paul has tried to stay clear of the loony white Christian-identity extremists who gravitated to his father, he had to sacrifice an aide who was recently unmasked as a onetime radio shock jock prone to neo-Confederate radio rants under the nom de bigot “Southern Avenger.” What was most interesting about the incident, however, was the response of another cardinal of the waning GOP Establishment, the George W. Bush speechwriter turned Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, who argued that Paul’s harboring of the Southern Avenger illustrates why it is “impossible for Rand Paul to join the Republican mainstream.” By that standard, the party would also have to drum out Rick Perry, who floated the fantasy of Texas’s seceding from the union, along with all the other GOP elected officials nationwide who are emulating Perry’s push for voter-suppression legislation in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s vitiation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That Gerson would hypocritically single out Paul for banishment in a party harboring so many southern avengers is an indication of just how panicked the old GOP gatekeepers are by his success. They will grab anything they can find to bring him down.
And they will keep trying. As a foe of the bank bailout of 2008 and the Fed, Paul is anathema as much to the Republican Wall Street financial Establishment as he is to the party’s unreconstructed hawks. Those two overlapping power centers can bring many resources to bear if they are determined to put over a Christie or Jeb Bush or a Rubio—though their actual power over the party’s base remains an open question in the aftermath of the Romney debacle. What’s most important about Paul, however, is not his own prospects for higher office, but the kind of politics his early and limited success may foretell for post-Obama America. He doesn’t feel he has to be a bully, a screamer, a birther, a bigot, or a lock-and-load rabble-rouser to be heard above the din. He has principled ideas about government, however extreme, that are nothing if not consistent and that he believes he can sell with logic rather than threats and bomb-throwing. Unlike Cruz and Rubio, he is now careful to say that he doesn’t think shutting down the government is a good tactic in the battle against Obamacare.
He is a godsend for the tea party—the presentable leader the movement kept trying to find during the 2012 Republican freak show but never did. Next to Paul, that parade of hotheads, with their overweening Obama hatred and their dog whistles to racists, nativists, and homophobes, looks like a relic from a passing era. For that matter, he may prove equally capable of making the two top Democratic presidential prospects for 2016, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, look like a nostalgia act.
This leaves Paul—for the moment at least—a man with a future. If in the end he and his ideas are too out-there to be a majority taste anytime soon, he is nonetheless performing an invaluable service. Whatever else may come from it, his speedy rise illuminates just how big an opening there might be for other independent and iconoclastic politicians willing to challenge the sclerosis of both parties in the post-Obama age.