With his filibuster on the floor of the United States Senate over the nomination of John Brennan, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul launched himself to the top of the Republican field of Presidential contenders, to the point where at least one veteran political observer says Paul is "riding a wave" of support that could take him as far as the White House.
This is quite a shift for a man whose earliest supporters say didn't even know running for office was an option for him as recently as four years ago. Those supporters, in fact, were just a handful of Californians in their early 20s running a "Draft Rand Paul" website out of their garage. Nevertheless, Paul now looks to have the potential to be the first self-proclaimed libertarian conservative to become his party's nominee for the presidency since Ronald Reagan, who told Reason Magazine in 1975:
If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals–if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.
However, experts also say that in the event that he runs, Paul faces the temptation of following a doomed political figure to irrelevance - namely, his own father, Ron.
Granted, it's not clear that Rand Paul is running for president at all. The Kentucky Senator has said he won't decide whether to make the run until next year. However, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, and one of the media's most frequently cited election prognosticators for his regular "Crystal Ball" column, sees White House ambitions in Paul's actions if not his words.
"If Rand Paul isn't running for president, he is certainly giving a good imitation of it," Sabato told TheBlaze. "Paul is riding a wave after 'droning on' in the Senate filibuster and making a popular speech at CPAC. His problem is going to be breaking out of the 10% to 20% his father could muster and becoming a real contender. It's still not entirely clear how much of his father's philosophy he embraces. The more he becomes Dad's clone, the less likely he is to be the nominee in 2016."
Certainly, the Paul name has dogged Rand in some less-than-pleasant ways since he joined the political scene. In fact, according to popular talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, the fact of Rand's descent from Ron may explain a large measure of the pushback against him after his filibuster. On the March 8 edition of his show, Limbaugh argued (emphasis added):
I'll tell you who else upset by this, and I'll explain this as the program unfolds. The neocons are paranoid. The neocones are paranoid because Rand Paul comes from his father's gene pool. This isolationist wing is worried about maybe there's something more going on here than simply opposing drone strikes. There's all kinds of ramifications. Well, they might think he's a kook, but they're worried that he's a kook that nobody thinks is a kook, and so they'll follow him. He's a stealth kook. [...]
Here's the substance of this. There is a fear among McCain, Lindsey Graham, and others who favor an interventionist foreign policy. Think of the neocons. Think of going into Iraq and not just securing Iraq, but building a democracy. Nation building, if you will. Think of the outbreak of the Arab Spring and the people on our side who thought, "Wow, this is wonderful. This is the outbreak of American democracy," when it wasn't. It was the exact opposite. Rand Paul, they're asking themselves, is he his father's son or is he on his own here? They're worried that he's his father's son. They're worried that Rand Paul is an isolationist. They're worried that Rand Paul's diatribe on drones really means that Rand Paul wants to bring the military home and not use it unless we're attacked. He doesn't like it being used in an intervention. This is what they fear. And as he succeeds in making a connection with the American people, they are worried, the neocons are worried that they are being undermined by this.
Limbaugh's words are borne out by the reaction of famed neoconservative Bill Kristol, who dismissively referred to Rand Paul as leading the "Code Pink faction of the GOP" and reacted with pique to Paul's description of large swaths of the GOP as having grown "stale and moss-covered." Most of this anger arguably only makes sense if you attribute it to fear of Ron Paul, rather than Rand Paul, given that the elder Paul was known to do things like defend Wikileaks source Bradley Manning as a "hero" and openly profess to disapproving of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Rand Paul has yet to make statements this controversial, and indeed, given that he has already angered his father's original support base by endorsing GOP nominee Mitt Romney last year, the signs suggest that Rand Paul wants to be his own man.
That's not to say that Rand Paul supporters never cross-pollinate with supporters of his father. Indeed, it's almost certainly the case that if it weren't for a few dedicated Ron Paul supporters, Rand never would have even though to run for office at all.
Anthony Astolfi, who currently runs the Human Action Super PAC, which is devoted to making Rand Paul the 2016 GOP nominee, was one of those Paul supporters. He and three other Ron Paul supporters were the first to hit on the idea of having Paul the younger run for national office, all the way back in 2009. Astolfi explained the process that brought Rand Paul to national attention in an email to TheBlaze:
Back in 2009 we started PEAC PAC in order to draft Rand Paul to run for U.S. Senate... out of our garage. At the time Rand Paul wasn’t widely known, we only knew of him from obsessively watching YouTube videos of his father Ron Paul. We liked what Rand had to say and how he said it. We did some research and found he lived in Kentucky and saw that the Senate seat would be a good race for him.
Our PAC created bumper stickers, radio ads, T-Shirts, setup meetup groups, money bombs, YouTube videos, attended conventions, yard signs, setup phone banking, we did just about everything a candidate that was actually running would do. One day we got a phone call. “From whom” you ask? Rand Paul. He said he never knew he could tap into the support his dad had and that he wanted to form an exploratory committee and would like our help to kick start a campaign with fundraising and a website. So we closed the PAC and got to work... To our surprise Rand even mentioned us on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow show as “the young guys from California” who set up his website, shown in the video featured above.
Rand Paul won the seat we prepared for him and is now one of the greatest defenders of individual liberty the U.S. Senate has ever known.
Funny thing is, when we first drafted Rand we often talked about him winning the Senate seat, then running for President. Now everyone is talking about that same thing.
So given that Astolfi and his compatriots started out as Ron Paul supporters, does that mean they think of Rand as the second coming of his father? The answer is complicated. According to Human Action PAC's "Five Reasons to Support Rand Paul," penned by Astolfi himself, the answer would seem to be "no":
2) Rand Paul IS NOT his father.
We get it, Rand Paul is no “Dr. No”, on every single vote. While, Rand and his father agree and vote similarly on nearly everything from economics to foreign policy, they do differ (often subtly) on a few issues and points of strategy. Ron Paul as a philosopher and educator championed a movement and woke up a generation. However Ron’s massive success in spreading the message of liberty has not yet translated into many political victories for this movement. We believe Rand Paul will be the leader to take us to this next level and accomplish the tangible results needed to shift our country back toward laws based on the Constitution and sound free market economics. Rand gives us a chance to reach across the aisle, communicate to a larger audience, make the message even more palatable. With our help he’ll get more people on our team. He is an incredible communicator, and will help us change Washington from the inside out.
At the same time, Astolfi told TheBlaze he sees commonalities between Rand Paul and his father.
"I would say they philosophically are very similar," Astolfi said, "but I think Rand has more tact politically."
Paul's office did not respond to requests for comment on the question of this philosophical similarity. However, in the event that Rand Paul runs for office, he can expect to see it probed relentlessly by opponents looking to tar him with the same brush as his eccentric father. Paul may have made that a bit easy for them in at least one respect, given that his opponents like to cite his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a belief that, while not grounded in racism, will probably be tied to his father's explicitly racist newsletters from several decades ago.
Will this be enough to sink a potential Paul presidential bid? Time will tell, though his commitment to reaching out to demographics previously underserved by the GOP may blunt the charge. Certainly, Paul appears closer to mainstream respectability than his father, to the point even of attracting kind words from Karl Rove, the consummate establishmentarian. His CPAC win, something his father managed twice, is another feather in the cap of the younger Paul, though probably not a decisive one.
Ultimately, though, the choice Rand Paul faces is deeply personal: Does he feel more loyalty to a coalition that could make him the second coming of Ronald Wilson Reagan, or to the ideology that will make him the second coming of Ronald Ernest Paul?