Rand's dopey rope-a-dope: A foundering campaign rationalizes its shortcomings

Paul's campaign says his quickly fading poll numbers are part of the plan to chainsaw his way to victory

Published July 28, 2015 5:58PM (EDT)


The Rand Paul 2016 presidential adventure is going through some rough times. Politico published a piece this morning diving into the internal struggles that are threatening to sabotage the freshman Republican senator’s White House bid – poor fundraising, low morale, an exodus of staffers, clashing personalities and strategies, and a candidate who alternates between being a disengaged flake and a micromanaging taskmaster. These reports of internal strife would certainly be consistent with Paul’s fading viability – his national poll numbers have crashed over the last month, and he’s on the decline in New Hampshire, a state whose quirky political character was supposed to mesh well with Rand’s atypical ideological pedigree.

Team Rand, of course, is not ready to acknowledge any sort of failing. Far from it – they’re actually arguing that this is all part of the plan. Rand is just biding his time, they say, and letting others fight for headlines while he focuses on the long game. Here’s Dave Weigel and Ben Terris writing in the Washington Post:

The press sees a candidate slipping out of the conversation. Those in his campaign say they see something else: a rope-a-dope strategy that is working more or less as intended. Although the fundraising numbers could always be higher, they insist there is minimal downside to being out of the media glare six months before the Iowa caucuses.

Several campaign staffers made the same point: No one is cutting through the fog of Donald Trump. Why send the candidate to the same all-day cattle calls the rest of the field has been dutifully trucking to, only to wind up earning him one paragraph, one moment of B-roll, in yet another story about the rampaging billionaire?

Taken in isolation, this argument at least makes some sense. They’re right that Donald Trump can’t be out-Trumped, and so there’s little utility in trying to compete for headlines with a one-man media circus. And I suppose it’s possible that Rand is laying low to sucker you into complacency before BANG he hits you with some freaky libertarian real talk that literally blows your mind. But their argument kind of falls apart when you recall that just last week, Rand Paul made a very deliberate attempt to steal the spotlight from Trump when he chainsawed the federal tax code, then set fire to it, and then fed it through a wood chipper. It was as flagrant a grab for attention as one could imagine. And as it turns out, the chainsaw and the giant stacks of federal tax law have now become part of the Rand Paul traveling sideshow.

This slow burn, rope-a-dope stuff feels very much like a campaign trying to rationalize away its shortcomings. They’re even using the tried-and-true clichés that all sinking campaigns deploy to maintain an aura of competence and calm – “This is a marathon, not a sprint, and candidates will fluctuate in the polls,” a Paul press aide told Politico. But let’s be generous and grant Rand the benefit of the doubt and allow that his reduced visibility and decline in the polls are all part of the plan. If that’s the case, then their plan is incredibly bad.

The whole idea animating the Rand Paul presidential campaign was Paul’s supposed ability to shake up the existing political dynamic and broaden the Republican Party’s appeal. He was going to be the Republican who would bring conservatives and libertarians together while also poaching younger voters and minority voters from the Democrats. Rand would talk about the need for Republicans to nominate someone radically different in 2016 if they wanted to stand a chance of winning. “I’m concerned that if we put forward the same sort of candidate again, that we won’t be successful.” The necessary condition for a successful Rand Paul candidacy, by Paul’s own reckoning, is to radically alter the popular perception of what it means to be a Republican and a conservative. He’s trying to convince the party that some of its most strongly held beliefs on foreign policy and criminal justice need to be overhauled.

And his strategy for bringing about this seismic shift in conservative and Republican politics is to sit back and let events overtake him? Perhaps it will be a passive revolution, one that only needs to be nurtured along every now and then with some strategic chainsawing.

By Simon Maloy

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