Conventional wisdom tells us that, in 2016, the Republican Party needs a transformational figure who can broaden the party’s appeal for an ever more diverse electorate or else it will become a minority party. The Republican Party has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. Their edge in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014 only underscores the extent of their demographic woes: they can only win when turnout is low — 2014’s turnout was the lowest in 70 years — and when the electorate tilts whiter, older and more conservative. Just as the party needed Reagan over 30 years ago, the GOP needs a leader to realign its narrative, its policy platform and its image to adapt to the demographic and ideological realities of the twenty-first century. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who announced his candidacy for President in Kentucky on Tuesday, is the only candidate in the field that can take up this mantle and is thus the GOP’s best choice for 2016.
Paul, more than any other candidate, has tried to reach out to disaffected voting blocs that when they do vote, vote blue, like African-Americans and college-age voters. His bold ideas, like scaling back surveillance programs or criminal justice reform, represent a departure from establishment Republicans who appear intent on adding to their party’s litany of failures and embarrassments (that range from George W. Bush’s costly, disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to Todd Akin’s cringe-inducing comments on rape and pregnancy). In spite of Paul’s ideological purity, charges that he is unelectable seem unfounded as he actually outperforms all of his rivals in polls that have he and Clinton head to head. His uncompromising fiscal conservatism, noninterventionist foreign policy, civil libertarianism and advocacy for criminal justice reform all position him as a transformational candidate the GOP needs.
Paul is the most ideologically consistent candidate whose integrity and honesty highlight the most attractive elements of small government conservatism. Republicans’ rhetoric of limited government, low taxes and free market principles rarely translates to responsible fiscal governance; the Bush administration accrued trillions of dollars in debt with reckless wars in the Middle East while Republicans in Congress more recently have caused countless episodes of hyper-partisan brinksmanship and government shutdowns. As the most consistently conservative candidate on fiscal issues, Paul can build a coalition of libertarians and Tea Partiers that can go all the way in the primaries. Furthermore, Paul’s populist economic message (and unrelenting opposition to corporate welfare) can resonate with independents and disaffected voters in ways similar to how Elizabeth Warren’s anti-Wall street rhetoric has.
Paul’s noninterventionist foreign policy philosophy will be his biggest obstacle in the primaries just as it was for his father and libertarian icon, Ron Paul. His disdain for foreign intervention sharply contrasts with the demagogic war-mongering exhibited by his rivals for the Republican nomination. However, Paul might see an opening following President Obama’s recent triumph — in securing a framework for a nuclear deal with Iran that would defuse tensions in the Middle East by stopping Iran from building a nuclear weapon while lifting its crippling, yet ineffective, sanctions. The deal could be the defining validation of President Obama’s entire foreign policy philosophy — that is predicated on tireless diplomacy rather than hawkish and combative posturing — and if it is, then the public might be sold on more prudent approaches to foreign threats. Furthermore, Paul’s emphasis on national security rather than brash nation-building illustrates his broader affinity for constitutional governance and limited government domestically and overseas.
Where Paul really steps out of the mainstream is in his affirmation, both in rhetoric and voting record, of the inviolable importance of civil liberties. His denouncement of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programs that spy on law-abiding American citizens represents that he is the only true maverick on either side of the aisle that would stand up to the executive agencies that quietly erode the constitutional protections and freedoms that this nation was founded upon. Casting himself as an outsider who will fight to reclaim civil liberties from overreaching, unaccountable executive agencies could have huge electoral benefits both in the primary season and the general election. Furthermore, a corollary of Paul’s civil libertarianism is that he takes a more moderate stance on social issues like gay marriage and marijuana legalization where the public is increasingly veering leftwards. The GOP cannot afford to let the Democratic nominee corner his or her (likely her) opponent by highlighting their unpopular conservative positions on social issues; Rand Paul is the candidate who can most feasibly navigate the potentially hazardous social issues that have long plagued Republicans.
Senators Rand Paul and Cory Booker’s (D-NJ) bipartisan criminal justice reform package — the REDEEM Act —highlights Paul’s determined effort to broaden the Republican Party’s appeal to minorities (who consistently vote Democratic ostensibly because of a complete lack of courting from the right). Though this legislative initiative won’t be enough to deliver minority votes to the GOP, it is a first step and without the “Obama effect” (80 percent of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans voted Democratic), it is very possible that Paul will siphon enough of the minority blocs to give a GOP ticket the electoral edge in what is likely to be the most diverse election in American history.
Together these pillars of Paul’s campaign approach and governing philosophy set him aside from the familiar cast of establishment figures. His unerring commitment to limited government and constitutional principles lend him the ideological purity necessary to excite the conservative base in the primaries. His vigorous defence of civil liberties and rebukes of hawkish interventionism would also position him well in a general election. Rand Paul is the change candidate that could become a transformative Republican icon for decades to come.
Ben Rudgley is a Viewpoint writer.