Rand Paul Follows Jesse Jackson's Playbook

Fringe candidates who edge into the party mainstream.
Jesse Jackson campaigning in Ohio in 1984.Photographer: Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images

Jonathan Chait's analysis today of Senator Rand Paul's "hostile takeover" presidential candidacy is on target. Paul is too far from the Republican mainstream, especially on foreign policy, for his nomination to result from anything other than a capture of the party by what is, at this point, a relatively small group. That would have no real precedent in the modern (post-1968) era.

There is some precedent for Paul's campaign, however. It may have a lot in common with Jesse Jackson 's 1988 campaign (while Ron Paul' s efforts in 2008 and 2012 resemble Jackson's 1984 run).

Both Jackson and Ron Paul were first seen as fringe candidates. By 1988, Jackson had earned a place among the "real" candidates --and Rand Paul has achieved the same result now -- as long as they weren't close to actually winning the nomination. That's because they both held policy positions that were just a bit too far from the party mainstream.

There's also a commonality that's far more subjective. Like Jackson in 1988, Rand Paul holds some positions that a lot of party actors, especially activists ... well, wish they held. Most Republican party actors don't embrace the libertarian ideas in Rand Paul's budget (shutting down departments of the federal government, radically changes to Medicare and Social Security), but they like to think that they do, or at least that they would embrace such positions if it was electorally safe. A lot of Democrats who supported Michael Dukakis in 1988 would find that way of thinking familiar.

Speaking of Dukakis, Paul 2016 confronts a field similar to the Democratic one in 1988: plenty of plausible nominees but no A-list heavyweights. Similarly, whatever the merits of Dukakis, Dick Gephardt , Paul Simon or Al Gore , none of them was the type of leader who inspires many people to become politically involved (with all due respect to early exiter Joe Biden and early flameout Gary Hart ). That doesn't seem very far off from this year's Republican field, at least so far.

Jesse Jackson's campaign helped move the Democratic Party closer to his positions in many policy areas, even if the party probably moved away from him on other issues. Paul has a reasonable chance of succeeding on that level. But Paul 2016 and Jackson 1988 probably will share something else: Their long-term influence in the party will be the right measure of whether they "won" or not.

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