Is Rand Paul the next Robert Taft?

His CPAC performance and new mainstream persona are latest hints he's not just the second coming of his father

Published March 18, 2013 11:20AM (EDT)

When Rand Paul was announced as the winner of the Republican presidential straw poll at CPAC over the weekend, there was no chorus of boos from the assembled conservatives, a far cry from the response when his father won the same event a few years ago. Unlike Ron Paul, whose political coalition existed as much outside the Republican Party as in it and whose numerous straw poll victories were the product of organized event-crashing that irritated party regulars, Rand has dedicated himself to becoming a force within the GOP -- and CPAC '13 represents the latest evidence that he's succeeding.

The instinct to compare the two Paul's is natural. They largely share the same quirky libertarianism, and when Ron stepped out of politics after his third and final presidential campaign last year, it seemed like he was handing off the movement he started to his son. But Ron Paul probably isn't the best point of reference for understanding where Rand Paul fits in today's Republican universe, and the role he could play in the years to come. A more interesting comparison might be found in the career of Robert A. Taft, the leader of a mid-20th Century conservative movement that was anchored by many of the basic tenets of Paul-ism.

Known as "Mr. Republican," Taft was the son of William Howard Taft and represented Ohio in the Senate from 1938 until his death in 1953. In that time, he waged three presidential campaigns, his following growing with each effort. In 1952, he came to the brink of securing the GOP nomination, only to watch helplessly as his panicked enemies in the party rejiggered the convention rules and put Dwight Eisenhower over the top.

Taft favored a libertarian brand of conservatism, one that prioritized individual liberty and was  deeply suspicious of big government, big business, and international adventurism. He was one of the New Deal's leading critics in the Senate, opposed U.S. involvement in World War II, and spearheaded the Taft-Hartley Act, which checked the power of organized labor. His style was hardly populist, but he appealed to a burgeoning army of grassroots individualists and was among the first to see the South as natural turf for conservative Republicanism.

Similarly, Paul is tapping into a Republican electorate that in the Obama-era has shifted toward his libertarianism. His recent filibuster of John Brennan's CIA nomination was something of a revelation, with Paul using his time to challenge the administration's drone program and numerous Republican senators joining him on the floor. Raising the same questions in the Bush years would have left Paul a marginalized figure in the GOP; but with Obama in the White House, there is far more latitude for a Republican to criticize national security policies on civil liberties grounds.

The sequester also illustrates how the GOP is lurching toward Paul-ism. When Obama proposed the automatic cuts, the assumption was that the prospect of steep Pentagon reductions would provide a strong incentive for Republicans to compromise. Instead, as March 1 approached the consensus among conservatives was to accept the across-the-board cuts. It was Paul, who argues strenuously that the entire federal government -- the Defense department included -- should be downsized, who's in the Republican mainstream on the sequester.

At CPAC, Paul railed against what he called a "stale and moss-covered" Republican Party and spoke of a five-year path to a balanced budget, drug decriminalization and an end to big bailouts. The speech demonstrated his ability to calibrate his message in a way that doesn't automatically alienate huge chunks of his party. Whereas his father would deliver rambling lectures that were heavy on gold and often disconnected from the political news of the moment, Rand Paul communicates a desire to make himself relevant to the GOP conversation. He is craftier than his father and has learned to finesse (or simply change) positions that seem too far out of the GOP mainstream, while strategically seeking out opportunities for showmanship.

The GOP in the last five years has become far more open to libertarianism, both domestically and internationally, creating a potential opening for a Taft-like leader on the right -- someone who can push the party toward non-intervention while seriously competing for power. Paul clearly is interested in running for president in 2016, and could conceivably win caucuses and primaries -- something his father never once did in two runs for the GOP nomination.

Granted, a Taft-Paul comparison is hardly perfect. Taft was a serious intellectual who was more ideologically flexible than many realize. And while his rhetoric suggests he's on the same page as his father, Paul's specific foreign policy views are actually a bit of a mess right now. Broadly speaking, though, the GOP is now receptive to Taft-ism in a way that it hasn't been in decades, and Paul is profiting from it. Ultimately, of course, Taft's views weren't quite mainstream enough to win him the GOP nomination; it was his non-interventionism that spurred Eisenhower's run in '52. But he very nearly won the nomination and was a major force in the party. It seems to be that example, more than his father's, that Rand Paul is interested in replicating.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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