For such an interesting candidate, Sen. Rand Paul formally announced his bid for the presidency in the most banal of ways.
Speaking before a cheering crowd at a Louisville, Kentucky hotel, the Republican senator spoke of himself as an outsider who can “beat the Washington machine.” Feel free to yawn here.
After that, Paul followed with the equally cliche-riddled declaration, “I have a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words. We have come to take our country back.” The son of a congressman who presently serves in the U.S. Senate professes to take the country back from the very Washington machine in which he currently maintains a cushy position. We’ve heard this in previous elections. We’ll hear it in future ones. The only problem is that despite his quite ordinary way of launching his campaign, Rand Paul is actually a peculiar candidate for president.
Should he become the nominee – highly unlikely at this point, but bear with me – we’d have the prospect of a presidential election in which the GOP presidential nominee would be far less hawkish in terms of foreign policy than his likely opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. We’d also have a presidential race in which the GOP presidential nominee genuinely wants to secure a higher portion of the Black vote. Rand Paul has spoken candidly about police brutality and has introduced legislation alongside New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker that would end the disparate federal drug sentencing laws.
Rand Paul has certainly made controversial comments about the Voting Rights Act in the past, but since then, he’s routinely spoken before Black audiences to make an effort to connect. Even if I don’t align with the majority of his political viewpoints, I’m intrigued. And also encouraged given that none of the other potential GOP candidates have bothered with Black voters or will bother in the looming election.
So despite his boring introduction, Rand Paul remains a more intriguing candidate than many of his peers in either party. However, unlike his father, former congressman Ron Paul, Rand Paul has accepted the notion that it’s better to brand yourself a political outlier than to simply be one. In some respects, that makes sense.
Rand Paul’s father is a libertarian in a majorly purist form and is not without controversy — just skim through any write-up about his old newsletters filled with racist sentiments. Still, for all his attempts to appear as normal and less “kooky” than the competition within the prospective GOP presidential field, Rand Paul surrounds himself with crazy.
At his rally on Tuesday, Paul had a local Black pastor named Jerry Stephenson speak. After the rally, Stephenson made some controversial comments about President Obama. Buzzfeed reports that after some prodding from reporters, Stephenson said, “In five years we’ll find out what [Obama’s] real religion is.” He went on to add, “I think the evidence of his actions are not friendly toward Christians. Once he’s out, he will ‘evolve’ like he did on gay marriage. I just believe that’s what he will do.”
To the Paul campaign, Latino and Black churchgoers are voters that can be poached from the Democrats in the general election. Maybe, but as far as Black voters go, questioning the religion of the first Black president – an exhausting exercise as illustrated by the entire Obama administration thus far – is probably not going to entice a bunch of Black people to abandon the Democratic shift.
Then there is the issue of the GOP base. In a segment on Monday’s edition of Fox & Friends, guest Dallas Woodhouse claimed, “Rand Paul’s got to prove that he will nuke a Muslim country if we have to. I’m not saying we should. But I’m saying we will do that if it takes saving America and that there’s no doubt that he will do what it takes to protect America.”
Woodhouse may be speaking for himself in this instance, but the idea that Paul is not accepting of America’s role as interventionist is a common belief among the sort of GOP voters who vote heavily in the primaries. He will be portrayed as weak on foreign policy, which is why his language noticeably changed at the rally.
But if he becomes hawkish, how does that differentiate him from the rest of the field? Just like if he gives into portraying President Obama as “other,” how does he attract more Black voters than the usual GOP presidential nominee? And if he becomes a disputative candidate who plays into caricatures of the nation’s first Black president who had a significant portion of the young vote in each of his wins, how does he follow Obama’s lead as the candidate of the youth as promised?
Rand Paul may have formally announced on Tuesday, but he’s been running for president for quite some time now. Sooner or later, he’s going to have to figure out who he wants to be as a candidate. Himself or a Forever 21 version of some design we’ve already seen.