Rand Paul and Marco Rubio's worst nightmare: Trapped between crazy GOP base and actual reality

Two front-runners have a bad week on voter ID and climate change. It's hard to keep Tea Party happy, and be honest

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published May 22, 2014 1:15PM (EDT)

Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul      (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Last week, 2016 speculation/news was dominated by Karl Rove's possibly botched smear attack on Hillary Clinton. But the real 2016 news was just how badly three prominent Republican aspirants were doing: the once dominant Chris Christie, who's arguably just seen the last three nails in his coffin; Marco Rubio, whose high-profile global warming denialism seems to have come at just the wrong time; and Rand Paul, with his one-step-forward, two-steps-back move on voter ID laws.

Tuesday, I wrote about Chris Christie's doomed campaign prospects, beset by woes on three fronts: damning evidence from the mouth of his own press secretary at ongoing legislative hearings that he tried to cover up the Bridgegate scandal; the sixth bond downgrade of his administration (and third of the year) signaling his failure on the economic front; and the fresh, still-unfolding pay-to-play scandal first broken by David Sirota. But just because Christie's prospects are so dire doesn't mean that anyone else's look that good, either, over on the GOP side.

Christie's plummeting fortunes are widely seen as indications that the GOP establishment is in trouble, and it clearly lacks any obvious candidate to rally around. But it's not as if any GOP candidate has really promising prospects — even to get the nomination, much less win the general election. No candidate in Real Clear Politics poll tracking has cracked 20 percent since Chris Christie did it twice back in November, just after his reelection. No candidate is currently above 13 percent in RCP's polling average (Paul and Huckabee are tied for the lead, trailed by Jeb Bush at 12.3 percent).

The travails of Rubio and Paul this past week or so are illustrative of a much more general problem: The GOP base's increasing political isolation makes it virtually impossible for anyone who wins the primary to have a chance at winning the White House. And yet, even the slightest awareness of the general electorate can trip up candidates in their primary run. Rubio (who once supported cap-and-trade, before flip-flopping in his Senate race against Charlie Crist) showed his stuff on climate change denial last week, and the results were not pretty. Nor were things much better with Paul's modest criticism of the GOP "going crazy" with voter ID laws. Rubio was trying to tack hard right, while still seeming reasonable — but he didn't. Paul was trying to seem reasonable, which he sort of did, until it became clear he had no intention of challenging the laws themselves.

Rubio's problems began with his comments on ABC's "This Week." The question put to Rubio by Jonathan Karl was refreshingly direct: “Miami, Tampa, are two of the cities most affected by climate change. So putting aside your disagreement with what to do about it, do you agree on the science on this? How big a threat is climate change?” Rubio ducked a direct answer to the question, and was off to the weasel-word races:

Rubio: I don't agree with the notion that some are putting out there including scientists, that somehow, there are actions we can take today that would actually have an impact on what's happening in our climate. Our climate is always changing. And what they have chosen to do is take a handful of decades of research and say this is now evidence of a longer term trend that is directly and almost solely attributable to man made activity....

Karl: You don't buy that...

Rubio: I don't know of any era in world history where climate has been stable. Climate is always evolving. And natural disasters have always existed....

Karl: But let me get this straight. You do not think that human activity, the production of CO2, has caused warming to our planet?

Rubio: I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it. That's what I—and I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy.

There's so much misdirection and obfuscation here, one might be tempted to call Rubio a master, except this is just a fairly standard regurgitation of a few of a denialist's more polished talking points. See Climate Progress, DeSmogBlog and Jonathan Chait for a sampling of the criticism Rubio drew online. Under the headline “A Politician in Denial,” his home state Tampa Bay Tribune editorialized the next day. It quoted the first paragraph above, and then said:

That is a politician in denial who is not up to responsibly tackling a complicated, serious challenge facing the nation and the world. With nothing credible to bolster his position, Rubio rejects the latest assessment by dozens of scientists working over five years — and the stacks of earlier reports and studies that pointed toward the same conclusion. This is not the sophisticated, critical thinking voters expect from the nation's leader. The senator trails evolving public opinion among voters who have more respect for established science and what they see with their own eyes than the senator does.

Cutting through all that nonsense on Tuesday at the National Press Club, an audience member asked, via a moderator, “What information, reports, studies or otherwise are you relying on to inform and reach your conclusion that human activity is not to blame for climate change?” And Rubio could not name a single supporting source of evidence.

Instead, Rubio went right back into his standard evasion mode, first uttering two mutually canceling irrelevancies. “Well, again, headlines notwithstanding, I’ve never disputed that the climate is changing, and I’ve pointed out that climate to some extent is always changing, it’s never static,” Rubio began. He then pulled out his ace in the hole: “That’s not the question before me as a policymaker,” and he was off talking about the futility of banning all coal in the U.S. — as if that was the question before him.

This has long been a Rubio favorite, apparently, using his non-scientist status as an excuse to ignore science entirely. Back in 2012, Rubio refused to give an answer when GQ asked, “How old do you think the Earth is?” “I'm not a scientist, man,” he said, instead of answering. “I'm not a scientist. I don't think I'm qualified to answer a question like that.”

Yet Rubio did feel qualified to opine that “the laws that they propose we pass ... will destroy our economy,” and economics also claims to be a science. Contrary to Rubio's claims on this score, as I pointed out last weekend, a new report from the International Energy Agency, “Energy Technology Perspectives 2014,” finds that cost savings in energy will far exceed the cost of investments to rapidly shift away from carbon-based energy. The press release explained:

The report finds that an additional $44 trillion in investment is needed to secure a clean-energy future by 2050, but this represents only a small portion of global GDP and is offset by over $115 trillion in fuel savings. The new estimate compares to $36 trillion in the previous ETP analysis, and the increase partly shows something the IEA has said for some time: the longer we wait, the more expensive it becomes to transform our energy system.

In short, Rubio's got the economics exactly backward, too. Perhaps he should just have said, “I'm not an economist, man. I don't think I'm qualified to answer a question like that.”

But, like the climate, things change. In fact, the very next day, as reported by Politico, Rubio appeared on Sean Hannity's show:

[T]he Florida senator brushed off a backlash labeling him as a climate-change denier by aggressively accusing left-leaning critics as hypocrites given their abortion rights positions. He said emphatically that the “science is settled” that life begins at conception but that liberals “will never admit” to it.

“Let me give you a bit of settled science that they’ll never admit to. The science is settled, it’s not even a consensus, it is a unanimity, that human life begins at conception,” Rubio said. “So I hope the next time someone wags their finger about science, they’ll ask one of these leaders on the left: ‘Do you agree with the consensus of science that human life begins at conception?’”

“It’s a proven fact,” Rubio said. “That’s a scientific consensus they choose to ignore.”

So, it looks like Rubio is a scientist, man, after all — but a damn bad one at that, as Tara Culp-Ressler explained at Think Progress:

If Rubio is trying to use abortion politics to prove that he and his Republican colleagues have a clear grasp of science, though, he waded into the wrong issue area.

Although “life begins at conception” is certainly a deeply held religious belief for many Americans, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the concept of “life” here actually has more to do with philosophy than it does with science. As Jodi Jacobson points out at RH Reality Check, “the phrase is highly — and purposefully — misleading because it confuses simple biological cell division both with actual pregnancy and with actual, legal personhood, which are all very different things.”

When scientists talk about conception, they use terms that are more medically specific than “life.” The current definitions relate to fertilization, implantation, and when a woman is officially considered to be pregnant.

She went on to point out that “The medical community agrees that conception begins once a fertilized egg is implanted in the uterine lining,” but, under Republicans, state policies “have increasingly been attempting to define pregnancy as beginning at fertilization.” She then noted:

This divide has huge implications, particularly because social conservatives are now exploiting it to redefine methods of birth control as “abortifacients.” That’s exactly what’s up for debate in Hobby Lobby’s current Supreme Court challenge against Obamacare’s contraception mandate — and conservatives aren’t exactly coming down on the side of science.

Perhaps Rubio was better off with “not a scientist, man,” after all. But I guess if he switched the subject from global warming to abortion, that's a win in itself, right?

But what about Rand Paul? Rubio got himself in trouble simply trying to mend fences with the Tea Party right. But Paul is several steps ahead of Rubio, trying to prove that the Tea Party base can be expanded upon, which is why some were genuinely encouraged to hear him seem to voice some recent criticisms of voter ID laws, as the New York Times reported on May 10:

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky broke Friday with fellow Republicans who have pushed for stricter voting laws as a way to crack down on fraud at the polls, saying that the focus on such measures alienates and insults African-Americans and hurts the party.

“Everybody’s gone completely crazy on this voter ID thing,” Mr. Paul said in an interview. “I think it’s wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it’s offending people.” ...

“There’s 180,000 people in Kentucky who can’t vote. And I don’t know the racial breakdown, but it’s probably more black than white because they’re convicted felons. And I’m for getting their right to vote back, which is a much bigger deal than showing your driver’s license.”

This causes a momentary wave of enthusiasm for the fundamental rationality of the move — from Slate's David Weigel, for example, who saw it as the beginning of a reality-based trend. (“Rand Paul Is Giving Up on Voter ID. Who’s Next?”) But others, such as Steve Benen at Maddowblog, were decidedly skeptical. No sooner did the excitement begin to spread than the director of Paul's PAC pulled the plug, proving Benen the wiser, and once again underscoring the enormous gap between Ron and Rand Paul's occasional rhetorical reach and the actual grasp of their real world politics. (It pays to remember, Paul's chart-topping 13 percent RCP polling average isn't much different from his father's national best.)

Here's how Weigel saw the appeal, picking up after quoting from the Times:

Paul has said this about felon voting rights before, and it's been a healthy three months since he actually testified in Frankfort for a change to state laws, but the "voter ID" thing hit like a grenade. A year ago, at Howard University, Paul had defended the standard Republican position that voter ID laws did not constitute much of a burden. Since then he has assiduously traveled to black communities, and the conversations really do seem to have changed his thinking. At that time, True the Vote—a "voter integrity" group that grew out of the Tea Party—praised Paul's#realtalk.

But that group has said nothing publicly about Paul's new quote, and did not respond when I asked for a comment. There's been no notable right-wing backlash at all. That's partly a sign of Paul's clout within the movement and the party and partly the result of years of liberal pushback.

He went on to note the GOP's reluctance to talk about its voter ID laws, their growing unpopularity, and losses in court cases. And added:

Steve Chapman, a libertarian columnist I used to work with at Reason, used his space today to deride the claims of widespread fraud that justify new ID laws. "Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott brags of successfully prosecuting 50 cases of election fraud," he wrote. "But the list his office sent me included only three cases in six years of someone being charged with voter impersonation at a polling place."

He also noted a practical reason for pulling the plug on more voter ID laws:

Republicans have passed voter ID laws that are unlikely to be overturned in the next few years. (Gerrymandered state legislatures in Wisconsin and North Carolina, for example, won't quickly flip back to the Democrats.) If the GOP stopped right now and passed no more voter ID laws, it'd still have plenty on the books in key states. A fine time to pull up the ladder.

Weigel makes a fine, well-crafted argument, which only has a single flaw: It presumes a level of rationality that's strictly from a faraway galaxy, as far as the GOP base is concerned. Benen, in contrast, started out by taking Paul's history seriously:

There are a few relevant angles to this. The first is that Rand Paul is an exceedingly awkward messenger for an otherwise sensible message. This is, after all, the same GOP senator who’s publicly criticized the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act, who hired a neo-Confederate as one of his top aides, and who came across as pretty condescending in his speech at Howard University.

Second, Paul seems to be a recent convert to the cause. It was just last year that the senator dismissed the same concerns he now claims to take seriously. Perhaps he’s learning or maybe he’s playing a crass political game.

Then Benen turned to the substance:

Note that Paul didn’t say voter-ID laws are discriminatory. He didn’t acknowledge how unnecessary they are, or the degree to which they address a problem that doesn’t actually exist. He also didn’t mention how legally dubious they are.

Instead, the senator said, “I think it’s wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it’s offending people.” ….

His reference to “too crazy” suggests the senator will be comfortable with some voter-suppression tactics, so long as his party does it in moderation, and his reference to “offending people” makes it sound as if voter-ID laws would be otherwise fine, were it not for a perception problem.

In other words, Rand Paul’s step in the right direction is small, and built on the wrong motivation.

Even that may have been too optimistic a reading in the end, however. As the director of Paul's PAC quickly made plain:

“Senator Paul was having a larger discussion about criminal justice reform and restoration of voting rights, two issues he has been speaking about around the country and pushing for in state and federal legislation.

“In the course of that discussion, he reiterated a point he has made before that while there may be some instances of voter fraud, it should not be a defining issue of the Republican Party, as it is an issue that is perhaps perceived in a way it is not intended. At no point did Senator Paul come out against voter ID laws. In terms of the specifics of voter ID laws, Senator Paul believes it’s up to each state to decide that type of issue.”

In short: Nothing to see here, folks. Move along. A good thing to keep that in mind, the next time someone wants you to get excited about Rand Paul.

Does he do a better job of “outreach” than the rest of the GOP? Yes, absolutely. But that's because he has no real competition. The point of his “outreach” is to not seem insular and extreme. Weigel's response shows just how successful Paul can be on this score. But seeming is one thing. Being is quite another. Conservatives like True the Vote were happy to back Paul's play, precisely because they understood the difference. The punditocracy is not that sharp. So they will continue to boost Paul's career. But he's already clearly shown his limits to those who have the eyes to see.

The same can be said of Christie, too. His latest wave of woes I chronicled Tuesday have yet to sink in with the pundits, much less the voters. But he's just made life incredibly easy for other candidates' opposition research teams, if he ever even dares to put his foot in the waters.

Eventually someone will win the GOP nomination. But the sorry state of the field today is not an accident. It's a reflection of the party's ideological exhaustion, and the extremist reaction that has followed. They will not be leading America for a very long time to come — unless, of course, they manage to lead it down with them.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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