No, Rand Paul Isn't the Front-Runner

The Kentucky senator's views on foreign policy are too far from the Republican mainstream.
He might squeak by on civil liberties and criminal justice, not on foreign policy. Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Is Rand Paul a viable presidential candidate and a plausible nominee?

Now that Josh Kraushaar has quoted one Republican strategist saying that Paul is the 2016 front-runner, I suppose I should revisit this one. When I last thought about it, I concluded that, no, Paul probably shouldn't be included among the large group of Republicans who have conventional credentials and who are within the public-policy mainstream of the party, and therefore isn't a viable candidate.

That's still correct. We're basically talking about three policy areas: civil liberties, criminal justice and foreign policy. In each, Paul is pretty far from where the Republican Party is. The first two issues are probably possible to fudge, and at any rate, the prison industry notwithstanding, there probably isn't a substantial, intense constituency within the party that could veto a presidential candidate because they don't like his views on either civil liberties or criminal justice.

But foreign policy? There, Paul is up against both the neocons and the pragmatists ... in other words, pretty much everyone outside of the Paul orbit who cares about national security. And they don't just disagree with him; that's their issue (or set of issues), and he's way out of their mainstream.

So for Paul to win, one of three things have to be the case. He could convert to an acceptable position, and have the party establishment accept it (see, for example, Mitt Romney on abortion and other social issues). It could turn out that foreign policy and national security elites don't actually have the clout within the party to veto a candidate. Or Paul's faction could turn out to be simply larger than what previously had been the mainstream, and his backers could create a new party mainstream.

None of those outcomes seems all that likely to me.

The most likely, I suppose, is that the party's national-security elites turn out to be paper tigers when it comes to nominations. That's possible -- this isn't like abortion, where there's no question about the veto power of the intense party-aligned group. We're not talking about a group with a mass following of people who care about their issues. But then again, there's a lot less holding even the neocons to the party than is the case for social conservatives, which would make a threat the former could walk from the party much more believable.

And, yes, fairly small groups can still have plenty of influence on the nomination process. Parties are coalitions that have agreed to work together. It's possible that the rest of the party could dump the national security/foreign policy part of the coalition, but there are risks to that (including very definitely the risk that once one group has been dumped, others might be next). If they hang together, however, it means not only that a strong message of Paul's unacceptability on those issues will have been transmitted to rank-and-file voters, but that party-aligned media and the neutral media would tend to amplify any anti-Paul stories, with fewer party actors coming to his defense and more willing to pile on.

None of this means that Paul can't be a very effective senator. But a Republican nominee for president? I could be wrong -- and we're not talking Rudy Giuliani levels of impossibility here, or even Newt Gingrich ones -- but unless some solid evidence turns up that Republican foreign policy types find him acceptable, I still don't think he's a viable candidate.

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