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Rand Paul’s unpredictable streak (and why it matters)

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is not an easy politician to read. And that would make him a pretty dangerous candidate for opponents if he runs for president in 2016.

Consider Paul's recent moves in the Senate:

* He was one of four Republicans to vote FOR Chuck Hagel's confirmation as defense secretary after voting AGAINST the motion to invoke cloture on the very same nomination. Paul spokeswoman Moira Bagley explained that while the senator agreed that there were questions about Hagel that needed to be answered, the president should be afforded some "leeway" when it comes to his nominees.

* Today Paul launched the Senate's first talking filibuster since 2010, opposing John Brennan, the president's nominee to be CIA director. “I will speak until I can no longer speak,” said Paul, who strongly opposes the nomination of Brennan and the Obama administration’s use of unmanned aerial drones. Brennan's nomination has not stirred nearly as much controversy as Hagel's did. The Senate Intelligence Committee cleared Brennan by a 12-3 margin on Tuesday, and all indications were that he was well on his path to being cleared by the full Senate.

So what do Paul's moves suggest? For one thing, he marches to the beat of his own drum in the Republican Party. Now, that's not wholly a new observation, considering the Paul's libertarian brand of conservatism and the issues over which he has found himself at odds with members of his own party during his time in the Senate.

But as Paul is mentioned with increasing seriousness as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, his unpredictability makes him a difficult candidate to read in the context of the potential GOP field, which includes the likes of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), New Jersey Gov. Christie, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

And difficult to read translates to dangerous for his potential opponents. Yes, Paul has long opposed the administration's drone program and criticized its lack of transparency. But it wasn't clear that he was ready to elevate that opposition with a talking filibuster until today. He opposed Hagel, which means it certainly wasn't clear that he would ultimately vote for him.

In other words, anticipating Paul's next move is next to impossible. And in a presidential campaign, that could mean headaches for the opposition. Half the battle in politics is anticipating what your opponent is going to do and how to hit back against it. The first part of that task looks to be a tall order when it comes to Paul.

Paul is also signaling that he is more than willing to champion the issues he cares about  even if he has to go it alone -- literally.

Paul's strategy is not without risk. There are some who will cast him as erratic or outside the mainstream on certain issues. And his outsized focus on something like the drone program, which hasn't generated widespread opposition among most Americans, may leave some scratching their heads. But it's not something his supporters see as detrimental.

"I think certain things rise above party politics. Certain things rise above partisanship," Paul said on the Senate floor today, explaining his filibuster.

On a snowy day with the federal government mostly shuttered, Paul has seized attention with an unorthodox move. It's probably safe to say it isn't the last time he will spring a surprise.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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