Welcome to the big leagues. That’s the message several top GOP operatives say Rand Paul will get from the Republican establishment, and from the media, when he announces his candidacy for the presidency on Tuesday.
These onlookers believe that Paul, who has been a media darling and a ubiquitous presence on the airwaves since his election in 2010, has gotten a pass from the press. In their eyes, he’s been allowed to skate past one controversy after another in part because he’s been a vocal critic of the Republican party.
“The media treats him better than they treat other Republicans,” says a top Republican operative. “He gets a free ride, but that free ride is about to end, because now he’s going to be in the crossfire.” The media haven’t dwelled on Paul’s fringier views, particularly on foreign policy, the operative says, because Paul is an interesting and colorful politician who has been a vocal critic of the George W. Bush administration’s muscular foreign policy. “They felt the same way about Huntsman,” the operative says, referring to former Utah governor and China ambassador Jon Huntsman, whose middle-of-the-road views attracted some attention when he ran for president in 2012.
If the media haven’t obsessed over Paul’s more colorful statements or his more controversial positions, the gloves are bound to come off within the Republican party.
The first sally in the Paul wars will take place on Tuesday, and it is set to coincide with the senator’s presidential announcement. According to Bloomberg, the hawkish group Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America, led by longtime Republican media strategist Rick Reed, will go up with a seven-figure ad buy on Tuesday targeting Paul for his views on Iran and comparing them to President Obama’s. The ads will air in the early-primary states, including Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, while Paul visits them in the days following his announcement. Until now, says the Republican operative, few people have been willing to have open fights within the GOP, but he says that in Paul’s case, “we’re a few months away from having the leaders of the party and the other candidates take part.”
Paul, a tea-party darling, won his Senate seat in 2010 by beating Mitch McConnell and the establishment’s preferred candidate in the Republican primary. In doing so, he managed to force McConnell to embrace him as a friend, gaining a rare ally among establishment Republicans.
Now, Paul hopes to do that with the rest of the Republican establishment, as he makes the case that he should be the whole party’s standard-bearer. His pitch, previewed by his campaign team in a YouTube video on Monday, is that he’s a “different kind of Republican.” The video shows several members of the media heaping praise on him and CNN anchor Candy Crowley, who helped scuttle Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, lauding him as perhaps the most interesting candidate in the Republican field.
#related#That’s undoubtedly true. Paul has offered the GOP new ideas at a time when it sorely needed them, pushing Republicans to show up in minority communities and leading by example. He’s partnered with Democrats on criminal-justice reform, an issue where real bipartisan consensus exists, and created a movement on his own regarding privacy and civil liberties, where even Republicans who disagreed couldn’t help but enjoy watching him give the Obama administration hell during his 13-hour speech against the U.S. drone program.
Though much has been written about what Paul owes to his father, and to the trouble Ron Paul’s troubling views might cause him on the campaign trail, less attention has been paid to the times at which Rand Paul’s own views have veered into conspiratorial territory. While courting libertarian voters on the campaign trail in 2010, Paul sat for interviews with the talk-radio host Alex Jones, a 9/11 truther whose audience donated generously to Paul’s campaign. He co-authored a book with, and hired to his Senate staff, a controversial talk-radio host who flirted with neo-Confederate views and was known as the Southern Avenger. He has said that former vice president Dick Cheney launched the Iraq War in order to benefit the oil-fields company Halliburton, for which Cheney previously served as CEO. And in February, he said that vaccines have done damage to healthy children, though he rushed to clarify that view.
Paul’s fellow Republicans have, for the most part, stayed silent as these issues have bubbled up, perhaps because they don’t see him as a threat. “Usually what happens in these things is that opponents comment on them when they need to do so,” says a Republican pollster. “There seems to be a pretty wide recognition now among the political world that the foreign-policy stuff really hurts Rand because the party has continued to pretty rapidly move to the more pro-Israel, pro-hawkish side.”
Paul, who has opposed increasing sanctions on the Iranian regime, has been conspicuously silent on the framework agreement reached among the administration, Iran, and other world powers last week. His campaign said he was out of pocket spending time with family, and did not respond to a request for comment on how the campaign plans to address some of the senator’s controversial statements.
The campaign manager of one rival presidential campaign says he has a strategy for the possibility that Paul makes himself a top-tier candidate, as the senator hopes to begin to do on Tuesday, but he doesn’t worry about it happening. “People will start talking about the crazy-person stuff once they view him as a threat,” he says, but “I don’t consider Rand Paul a threat.”
That’s a double-edged sword for the Kentucky senator, who has been the clearest among the possible candidates about his ambitions and his intent. His ambitions were clear enough dating back to the night he won his Senate primary in 2010, when he told the crowd their efforts could “transform America.”
“I think America’s greatness hinges on us doing something to save the country,” he said. “Join the movement.”
Starting Tuesday, there will be a sizeable group of Republicans trying to kill that movement. And they think the media will be paying attention.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.