Rand Paul has emerged as one of the most interesting politicians in America today, a dash of color on a largely drab and predictable national landscape.
The senator from Kentucky – an ophthalmologist and son of libertarian icon Ron Paul – is certainly the hottest Republican of the moment, with a recent raft of positive media coverage to prove it.
The essence of Paul’s success in capturing, and, he hopes, extending his turn in the sun is a rare combination of instinct, a keen ear for the national zeitgeist and practical political chops. Dr. Paul’s rise is also rooted in his appreciation for several fundamental truths:
A US Senate seat is a powerful national platform. Paul understands the potential of his office; to paraphrase an oft-repeated line about the president, an ambitious United States senator can have dinner with just about anyone they want. From his earliest days in the Senate, Joe Biden knew this. Paul isn’t afraid to pick up the phone and his calls are clearly being reciprocated – whether it is Rupert Murdoch joining him for a mint julep at Churchill Downs or Paul dropping in on key players in Silicon Valley. For a Republican senator from the south, Paul is reaching out to people beyond the usual suspects and he’s effectively building key relationships and his brand in the process.
Young people are up for grabs. Despite President Obama’s overwhelming success in reaching and mobilizing new voters, that hasn’t translated into any kind of sustained partisan allegiance among millennials. Younger people don’t seem to have much interest in hitching their political identities to the two major parties but Rand Paul is a Republican, and if he runs for president it will have to be under the GOP banner. His counter-establishment positions on foreign policy, domestic surveillance and the militarization of local police help him connect with younger people’s disenchantment with traditional partisan orthodoxies.
Voters are hungry for authenticity. There’s an old joke that success in politics hinges on sincerity – and if you can fake that you’ve got it made. Paul is too much of a character to fake anything at all, there’s nothing contrived about him. He’s no clothes horse and certainly doesn’t have overmoussed hair. He speaks to audiences as if they are reasonable adults. Most importantly, Dr. Paul evinces genuine thoughtfulness and intellectual curiosity in his approach to multi-dimensional issues, a refreshing change in the land of talking points.
Republicans must grow their base. National demographic trends make clear that an aging, overwhelmingly white Republican base will imperil the party if it is not able to broaden and enhance its appeal to African-Americans and Latinos. Paul has been candid about the GOP’s spotty performance in engaging these communities and he sees the need to build trust before any broader message can be heard. For starters, Paul has decried the sentencing disparities for drug offenses that see a disproportionate number of African Americans sent to prison or kept there for longer terms, a message he brought to the National Urban League Conference in Cincinnati this summer. Although his overture was cooly received, Paul is resolute in putting out the welcome mat based on the underlying strategic assumption that African Americans and others can only gain by hedging their partisan bets.
There is always a risk in being the media’s favorite Republican – just ask John McCain or Chris Christie how quickly things can turn. So Rand Paul’s honeymoon will eventually come to an end, perhaps as soon as he’s off the plane from performing pro bono eye surgery in Guatemala. But he plays an elegant game that will be entertaining to watch as the race for 2016 kicks into gear after November’s election.