William F. Buckley Jr. once famously said that Republicans should nominate the most conservative candidate who can also win. The test has proven a surprisingly accurate predictor of the party’s presidential candidate: Mitt Romney beat the unelectable conservatives to his right; George W. Bush beat the waffling conservatives to his left.
This time around, most of the potential GOP candidates once again lack either broad electoral appeal (Ted Cruz) or the credentials to win over the conservative base (Jeb Bush, Chris Christie). One candidate, however, has the unique distinction of failing both of Buckley’s criteria: Rand Paul.
The Kentucky senator, who officially announced his presidential run on Tuesday, is perhaps alone among Republican candidates in being both insufficiently right-wing and too far outside the mainstream of American politics. Because of these twin weaknesses, Paul is spectacularly ill-suited to capture his party’s nomination.
Paul’s problems with the right are legion, but it’s his foreign policy views — from ISIS to Russia to Cuba — that most obviously separate him from conservatives. On Iran, for instance, the Republican Congress has repeatedly flayed President Obama for failing to confront the dire threat posed by the ayatollahs. But in 2007, Paul said that “...If you look at it intellectually, look at the evidence that Iran is not a threat. Iran cannot even refine their own gasoline,” according to Bloomberg News.
As his presidential campaign drew near, Paul lurched to put himself closer to the mainstream of the Republican party. But even if he now falls completely in lockstep with conservatives, it’s hard to imagine how Paul can escape the shadow of his former statements. In 2009, for instance, Paul suggested that former Vice President Dick Cheney wanted to invade Iraq to benefit his former employer, Halliburton. Then there was his policy speech on the Ukraine last year, which the National Review called “bizarre and delusional.” There’s also Paul’s flip-flopping on the legality of drone strikes.
Conservatives are clearly unconvinced by the reinvention, and Paul’s opponents are already jumping at the chance to portray him as an isolationist unconcerned about global terrorism. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a possible presidential candidate, said this week that Paul is “to the left of Barack Obama” on foreign policy. Conservative hawks have already purchased $1 million in advertising to portray Paul as dangerous on foreign policy, according to The New York Times.
Paul, of course, is not alone among GOP contenders in facing challenges winning over the right-wing. Jeb Bush, in particular, has already been criticized for his (allegedly) conciliatory views on immigration and education. Romney was able to overcome similar suspicions on the right.
The difference is that where Bush’s heresies broaden his possible base of support, Paul’s actually make him less appealing in a general election. Romney could plausibly argue that his history of working with Democrats in Massachusetts made him more likely to beat Obama. Jeb Bush can rightfully claim that a more humane immigration policy will give Republicans a better shot with Hispanic voters.
Though infuriating to conservatives, these appeals to electoral realities won valuable insider support for Romney. They’ve proven similarly effective at giving Bush the edge in the “invisible primary” with the establishment. But what comparable electoral advantage could Paul claim from his controversial heterodoxies on foreign policy? And that's before we even mention his policy quirks outside the realm of international relations -- like, for example, the strange beliefs about monetarism he inherited from his father (the economically dubious suggestion that America return to the gold standard chief among them). His more humane approach to criminal sentencing is similarly unlikely to win over conservatives.