In theory, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has it largely right on immigration reform. Our current system is broken. We cannot deport everyone. But he risks repeating House Majority Leader Eric Cantor‘s error in trying to have it both ways. That would be a shame, because given his standing on the far right, Paul could make a significant difference on the issue — if he has the courage of his convictions.

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks during the inaugural Freedom Summit meeting for conservative speakers in Manchester, New Hampshire April 12, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaks during the inaugural Freedom Summit meeting for conservative speakers in Manchester, N.H., on April 12. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

In the Senate immigration reform battle, Paul insisted that he was for a reform bill. He sold himself to Silicon Valley donors as pro-reform. He told Hispanic audiences that we needed some citizenship path, albeit not a special path to citizenship. But when push came to shove, he introduced an odd provision — requiring Congress to vote annually to confirm border security (what if the Congress goes Democratic?) — which was predictably defeated, giving him his rationale to vote no on the bill.

Now he complains that he is being tarred as being pro-amnesty. Cue Mr. Cantor. He, too, favored reasonable, modest immigration reform but didn’t strongly press the issue and sounded insincere when he declared in the campaign that he was among those standing in the way of amnesty.

Paul now decries the loudmouth anti-immigration reform types, writing:

I am for immigration reform because I am against allowing 12 million more illegal immigrants into our country. If we do nothing, 12 million more illegal immigrants will come. We must be in favor of reform—smart reform that starts with border security.

Characterizing that position as “amnesty” is simply untrue.

What we have now is a lawless border. Current policy is a beacon for more illegal immigrants. The Obama administration’s lawless executive orders legalizing people who came here illegally will only encourage more illegal immigration—unless we act now with real, strong, verifiable border security.

That is what the Gang of Eight said as well. The only difference was the basis for determining the border’s security so that legalization/citizenship could proceed. But here Paul copped out: “My plan takes border security a step further than anybody else in Congress. Under my plan, Congress will vote every year on border security. If Congress votes that the border is not secure, elements of immigration reform will cease to go forward and visa programs will be slowed. If Congress does not think the border is secure after five years, every element of immigration reform will be stopped.” How is that remotely feasible? An on-again-off-again system, one that different Congresses controlled by different parties would start and stop at will, is not a recipe for anything but chaos. And as a realistic matter, it’s the sort of deal no one in the Senate could get behind.

Paul could have had the power of his convictions and voted for the Senate immigration reform. He could have had the nerve to explain that while it wasn’t perfect, it was by no means “amnesty” and was the sole vehicle to push the measure ahead. He could have come to Cantor’s defense (or Jeb Bush’s, for that matter) when Cantor was smeared by radio talk show hosts on the same grounds that Paul is now being criticized. He now is stuck explaining himself and his dubious plan rather than advancing a pro-immigration argument. If you are explaining yourself, the saying goes, you are losing.

Indeed, playing it too cute by half is a recipe for disaster. Paul is not doing enough to support the pro-immigration reformers, and he’s not fooling the anti-immigration crowd by saying he’s one of them on opposition to “amnesty.”

His predicament is self-made and unnecessary. As we have reported all week, polling even among GOP primary voters shows wide support for step-by-step immigration reform. The way to stop critics accusing you of supporting “amnesty” is to put forth a realistic bill or stand behind an existing one and engage critics on the merits.

Paul is making a similar but not identical error on foreign policy. There (unlike immigration reform), he adopted an indefensible isolationist stance that sounded like warmed-over Obama foreign policy sprinkled with his father’s conspiracy theories. When challenged, he lashed out at his opponents and insisted that he is a “Reaganite” on foreign policy. That has not passed the laugh test, and now voters have every reason to question whether he believes in any specific policy other than one that would get him elected.

I suspect — although no one can say for sure — Paul in his heart of hearts is very close to his father on foreign policy and Jeb Bush on immigration reform. As to the first, he has correctly surmised that isn’t going to fly. On the latter, he’s try to walk such a fine line that no one can figure out where he stands.

On immigration reform, Paul has a winning position in there somewhere. He just needs to take on the anti-Cantor, anti-immigration reform crowd who will never support him anywhere. Maybe that won’t help his presidential ambitions, but it would help the cause of immigration reform and earn respect from voters.

Cantor should have taught politicians and voters a key lesson: Be yourself and defend yourself. Otherwise you will please no one and convince everyone you’re a phony.