Palm Beach, Fla. — Those who doubted that Rand Paul was will running for president need to change their minds after considering how he energized the conservative grass roots with his 13-hour Senate filibuster last week.
Paul took a narrow issue — as he put it, “whether an American can be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime” — and captured the attention of political activists. As social media lit up with praise for his efforts, many of his fellow senators joined him on the floor, in solidarity with his demand that the Obama administration answer a question it had legalistically evaded for days. Representative Keith Rothfus of Pennsylvania was part of a group of House members who went to the Senate floor to “stand with Rand.” “The atmosphere was electric, “ he says. “Republicans felt we were advancing.” The day after the filibuster, Attorney General Eric Holder capitulated and finally gave Paul a direct answer: “‘Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?’ The answer to that question is no.” Rand Paul isn’t as direct when asked whether he is running for president, but he says he is “seriously” considering it. If he does enter the race, he will clearly do so by stepping out of what he views as an establishment straitjacket that keeps conservatives from communicating their message to young people, Hispanics, and disillusioned independents. “We’ve got to appeal to younger voters, the West Coast, people who view Republicans as in league with crony capitalists and the wealthy, and those who are suspicious of endless foreign interventions,” he says. “Otherwise, we are going to become a niche product for red states.” Much of the GOP establishment obviously resents Rand Paul’s arrival on the national stage. Take John McCain, who tangled frequently with Rand’s father, Ron Paul, when they both ran in the GOP primaries in 2008. A front-page photo in the New York Times captured him glowering as he happened to share an elevator with Rand Paul in the Capitol building last week. McCain told reporters that if the younger Paul “wants to be taken seriously, he needs to do more than pull political stunts that fire up impressionable libertarian kids.” But at the annual Club for Growth meeting here in Palm Beach, it wasn’t kids in the audience who greeted Paul as a hero, giving him a standing ovation both before and after his talk last Friday. The Club for Growth is a group of sober-minded business owners and investors who have proved their political clout by helping elect tea-party-oriented senators, including Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Rand Paul himself. Some Club members are already in Paul’s corner for 2016. “He has broadened his appeal to include three issues that 75 percent of the American people agree with,” says George Yeager, an investment counselor from New York. “He wants a balanced-budget amendment, term limits, and a questioning of mindless nation-building overseas.” Jim DeMint, the former South Carolina senator who is now president of the Heritage Foundation, told Club members that he “couldn’t think of a more dramatic contrast between some senators having dinner with President Obama on the same night last week that Rand Paul and his allies were making their courageous stand.” In his view, “the balance of power in the Senate GOP caucus is shifting.” He noted that key members of the Senate leadership, such as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Jerry Moran of Kansas, came to the Senate floor in support of Paul’s effort. If Paul ran for president, he would no doubt be the underdog, given the Republican Party’s post-Reagan penchant for nominating only establishment figures. But two consecutive presidential defeats have discredited the establishment in the eyes of many activists. Mallory Factor, who runs a popular “Monday Meeting” of conservative activists in Charleston, S.C., had Paul speak to his group recently and reported that the response was very favorable. “He has a fresh appeal,” Factor says. “And the mailing lists he inherits from his father’s two campaigns are a huge fundraising and organizational head start” in South Carolina and other states that will vote early in the 2016 nominating process. The reaction in other early-voting states is also favorable. “I don’t think you can underestimate how big of a moment this was,” conservative Iowa talk-radio host Steve Deace told Politico, speaking of Paul’s filibuster. “If the Iowa caucuses were tomorrow, he would win in a landslide.” Even Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s 2008 presidential effort, told Politico that Paul could be a formidable candidate. “I can’t tell you how many hours and meetings are devoted to discussing the candidate’s vision in a campaign,” said Schmidt. “Well, you wouldn’t have to do that with him. . . . He’s got the right combination of principles, oratory skills, smarts, and showmanship.” Now that Paul has seized the limelight, he will begin a process of being grilled and dissected by a media that is largely hostile to his libertarian message. He delivers that message more smoothly and effectively than his father does — the elder Paul has been tagged at times as cranky — but Paul’s strength, his freshness, is also a potential weakness. After his upset GOP-primary win for the Senate in 2010, the neophyte Paul, who has held office for only two years, gave a now-infamous interview on MSNBC in which he disastrously questioned the constitutionality of parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Since then, Paul has done a better job of steering what he calls “a middle ground between pure libertarianism and traditional conservatism,” but some GOP leaders still view him as a loose cannon. One senator told me privately that if Paul runs, GOP voters would be unlikely to shake a sense that Paul “has a veiled radical agenda that would undermine the military, leave Israel in the lurch, and savage programs many people depend on.” By all appearances, Paul is trying to assuage these misgivings. He recently met with the leadership of the American Israel Political Action Committee and made his first trip to Israel. He has put his legislative staff to work on veterans’ issues and pointed out that reforming the Pentagon will help ensure U.S. military strength. Most important, he has developed a good relationship with Minority Leader McConnell, his fellow Kentuckian. Paul’s former campaign manager is now leading McConnell’s 2014 reelection effort, and McConnell has allowed Paul a great deal of freedom to offer amendments of his choosing on the Senate floor. All of this makes it harder for people to depict Paul as a fringe figure in the Senate. But for all his efforts, some Republicans — those who blame the Tea Party for the GOP’s failure to take back the Senate from Democrats in 2012 — would probably treat a Paul candidacy as an insurgency they need to suppress. They will insist that Paul won’t appeal to women, moderates, and people who will be suspicious of his Kentucky drawl. But even those who are hostile to Paul should welcome his candidacy. If his star-making filibuster is any indication, his entry in the race will help make the GOP attractive to younger voters and people who are traditionally suspicious of both major parties. For a party that clearly had an “outreach” problem to those voters in 2008 and 2012, that can only be helpful.