The only one who had a worse summer than Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was Hillary Clinton. Like Clinton, Paul’s string of problems largely stem from a problematic record and/or identification with an Obama-style foreign policy. His past proposed budget eliminating aid to Israel (and everywhere else) tripped him up in Iowa, where he was caught fleeing from a pro-immigration reform activist. (More to the point, why was he palling around with Rep. Steve King, the Iowa Republican regularly denounced for his bigoted remarks on Hispanics?) His reaction of indifference to the rise of the Islamic State and assertion that we have no dog in the fight for domination of Iraq put him at odds with virtually every elected Republicans, and a great number of Democrats. As his polls decline relative to the GOP field, a number of questions about his potential candidacy remain.
Does Rand Paul have a staff problem? Consider that he brought on the “Southern Avenger” Jack Hunter to help write his book, defended his hiring of the pro-Confederate former radio talk show jock and then had to part company with him. While trying to assure conservatives he was a mainstream Republican on foreign policy, he tapped for foreign policy advice Richard Burt, co-author of the Global Zero plan, which features unilateral disarmament. His 2010 campaign chief Jesse Benton, his father’s former 2012 campaign director and expected 2016 campaign chief, was forced to resign from Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) campaign over controversy swirling in an Iowa bribery scandal. (Also being mentioned is another familiar face in the Paul family political operation, Dmitri Kesari.)
Other aides have problems of their own. Longtime confidante Doug Stafford was allegedly caught on tape directing funds from a 501c(4) group to political candidates, part of a longstanding issued concerning the Right to Work organization and affiliated groups. It is hard to find someone in his inner circle who does not have a nose for trouble. (Rand Paul’s communications chief Brian Darling was forced to resign from former senator Mel Martinez’s office in 2005 after being identified as the author of an objectionable memo on the Terry Schiavo affair and denying his authorship.)
What is with the Paul organization? Whether bad luck, inadequate vetting or an organizational culture in which aberrant behavior and eccentric views are the norm, the Paul operation does not seem presidential-campaign ready. Perhaps the personalities he attracts reflect the libertarian deviance of authority, which is fine for a gadfly senator but problematic for someone seeking high office. Ultimately, the responsibility for his staff rests with Rand Paul (and to some extent his father).
Has Paul given up trying to convince voters he is a mainstream Republican on national security? Rand Paul’s team repeatedly promised a major foreign policy speech, vowing to prove critics wrong about his views. But the strain between posing as a mainstream conservative on national security and appealing to hardcore libertarians (e.g., opposing drone attacks on American jihadists and aggressive National Security Agency data-gathering, supporting zero troop options in Iraq and Afghanistan, refusing to recognize U.S. national strategy interests in Iraq and Syria, supporting reduced military spending and bases around the world, denigrating critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin, eliminating all foreign aid) may be too great. He recently announced the speech would be off the record. His staff dutifully claim this is not a change in plans, but speaking out of range of the media is both foolhardy (someone surely will record it) and a sign of weakness. As foreign policy has grown in importance for the 2016 presidential race, Paul’s woes have mounted even before a head-on attack from opponents.
The upshot of these factors plus his support for the ill-fated shutdown, which is viewed by establishment Republicans as hugely problematic if not disqualifying, are decreasing his ability to draw support from big donors and moderate Republicans. In essence, he may wind up right where his father left off — beloved by a cadre of staunch libertarian supporters but unable to put together a big enough coalition to win. It is not merely big donors and moderates who remain skeptical. Evangelical and other pro-Israel GOP voters, who put Israel and the jihadist threat high on their list of priorities, will have many alternatives whose support for Israel and commitment to fighting the Islamic State is unquestioned. Why would an evangelical pro-Zionist take Paul when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) or Texas Gov. Rick Perry or former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee are on the ballot?
Paul has not made a definitive decision to run for president, but mounting issues with his potential 2016 presidential campaign sharpen key questions for him: If he is not able to change or invalidate Kentucky state law prohibiting him from running for two offices, would he give up his chance for reelection for the Senate? Or would he run for Senate in Kentucky and for president everywhere else, sacrificing Kentucky’s delegates for the nomination and potentially the state’s electoral votes in a general election?
Few expect Paul to give up his shot at the presidential nomination, no matter the odds. The risk, however, is that he and his ideology will get rebuffed by voters while he loses his perch in the Senate. At least he has a profession to fall back on.