Will Rand Paul's quixotic campaign call out the elephant in the room?

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Rand Paul Can't Change Republicans

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”
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Rand Paul, the Republican senator from Kentucky, announced on his website Tuesday morning that he's running for president. He says he's "a different kind of Republican leader," by which he means a libertarian kind. The closer he gets to the presidency, however, the less libertarian he gets. His evolution is a case study in how hard it is even for a talented politician to remake his party.

Paul argues that his concern for civil liberties, skepticism about foreign intervention and willingness to back off in the War on Drugs will win him the support of voters who have never pulled the lever for a Republican. He has spoken often about bringing more minorities and young people into the Republican tent. He hopes to rebrand his party the way Bill Clinton did when he ran, in 1992, as a "different kind of Democrat." But while Clinton had some success at remaking his party, so far Paul's party is remaking him. 

Paul has shifted most on national-security issues. Last summer, he switched from skepticism to enthusiasm about bombing Islamic State militants. In March, he signed a letter from Republican senators warning Iran's leaders that any nuclear deal they agreed to might not outlast Barack Obama's presidency. Then he sponsored an amendment to boost defense spending, which he had tried to cut in his first year in office.

The senator gets a bit of a bad rap for shifting on social issues. He has always opposed abortion and same-sex marriage, but he's also been eager to make these issues a smaller part of national politics. His desire for the nomination, though, seems at least to be shifting his emphasis. He described the success of the movement for same-sex marriage as a moral crisis.

There are two reasons Paul hasn't had much success in shifting the Republican Party his way. The first is that on his signature issues, there are more Republicans who actively oppose his stances than actively support them. Most Republicans have vague views on foreign policy that shift with the times: Years of American bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan made them more dovish, and then news of aggression from Russia and Islamic State made them more hawkish. But among Republicans who vote on the issue -- and make noise about it -- there are far more advocates of using or threatening force abroad than there are of retrenchment. So Paul wasn't going to be able to help himself by campaigning on his original foreign-policy views.

The second is that Republicans don't believe that they need to move in his direction on these issues to win elections. Most of them think a relatively muscular stance on foreign policy is an asset, not a liability. On some of Paul's other issues -- drugs, surveillance, criminal-justice reform -- moving in his direction might help the party, but only a little. In other words, Republicans don't think their positions on these issues are in need of much change. Democrats were in a different position when Clinton ran as an opponent of liberal orthodoxy on welfare: That orthodoxy had hurt Democrats badly, and a lot of them knew it.

Put both factors together, and Paul is left with no sizable constituency that wants his distinctive views and no sense among the rest of the party that they have to embrace them if they want to win elections. So he's walking away from what makes him distinctive, becoming a conventional rather than transformative Republican.

Republicans have sometimes talked about remaking the party when they've lost elections. But parties are hard to change. For several decades, Republicans have been, relative to Democrats, the party of social conservatism, nationalism and free-markets, and that isn't going to change -- no matter how well Rand Paul does next year.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net