For Republicans pondering their future as a party, they got a good look at the two main paths during the Conservative Political Action Conference Thursday.
Down one path is Marco Rubio — the conservative-but-not-too-conservative Florida senator who came up as a tea party favorite but has morphed into the establishment’s preferred 2016 candidate (assuming Jeb Bush does’t run) and who is flexing his leadership muscles by trying to broker compromise on the hot-button issue of immigration.
Down the other is Rand Paul — the 4th Amendment-citing Kentucky Republican senator who made a national name for himself with a 13-hour long filibuster of President Obama’s pick for the CIA and relishes his reputation as a man willing to swim against the political tides.
While Rubio and Paul agree on much — both men are, for the most part, down-the-line conservatives, there is a tonal and attitudinal difference between the two that speaks to the choice before Republicans over these next few years.
Rubio represents an easing of the Republican party into the future. You can draw a (relatively) straight line between the conservatism espoused by Rubio and the other men (Dole, Romney, McCain, Bush) who have either run for or been president in recent years. He represents change — Rubio would be the first Hispanic-American to be the nominee of either party — but well within the bounds of what the political establishment knows (and likes).
Paul, on the other hand, is all elbows and jutted angles, an in-the-flesh rejection of the Republican party of the past — and even the present. “The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered,” Paul said in his CPAC speech today – just days after Sen. John McCain derided the senator (as well as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Justin Amash) as “wacko birds.” Paul’s sort of conservativism — tinged with a heavy dose of libertarianism — would turn the GOP into something that the likes of McCain (and even Rubio) might not recognize.
Yes, there is some oversimplification at work here. Rubio does not perfectly encapsulate the establishment — he rode into office by beating that establishment (in the form of then Gov. Charlie Crist) — and Paul is less of a pure ideologue than his father (and former three-time presidential candidate) Ron Paul.
But, if both men run for president in 2016 — and each has given every indication that he will — they will provide their party with a very stark choice about who it is and where it wants to go.