Is Rand Paul a “bizarre and even dangerous” candidate filled with kooky ideas? Or is he “the same as any other Republican presidential hopeful” while only masquerading as the fresh new thing?
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Democrats deployed both of these attacks on Tuesday. The former quote came from opposition research group American Bridge, the latter from a statement by Democratic Party chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Taken together, they point to a broader question of how to tear down Paul given his unique role in the GOP field, where his libertarian views on foreign policy and civil liberties often clash with other party hopefuls.The “wacky” side and the “same old” sides aren’t necessarily contradictory. Both the DNC and Bridge prominently feature Paul’s record on social issues, for example, which they hope can counter his potential appeal with young voters. But there are challenges to hitting both messages at once: Too much time portraying Paul as an oddball could reinforce his message that he’s an iconoclast; too much time portraying him as more of the same could undermine attacks on his libertarian views as uniquely extreme. And too many attacks in general could mean none of them quite stick.
“There’s no tension,” Wasserman Schultz told msnbc on a call with reporters ahead of Paul’s announcement speech. “The Republicans have been pulled so far to the right-wing extremes by the tea party that essentially whether they count themselves from the establishment wing or the tea party wing, they’re all the same.”
Paul, perhaps more than any candidate in the Republican field, is banking his campaign hopes on an aggressive outreach effort to voters outside the party base. Whereas Sen. Ted Cruz’s announcement at evangelical Liberty University was aimed squarely at social conservatives, Paul’s event included speeches from black and Latino supporters, a college student, and a video that prominently featured a clip of “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart discussing one of the senator’s filibusters. His speech quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s invocation of “two starkly different American experiences that exist side by side” and highlighted his visits to poor neighborhoods in Detroit and Chicago.
The prime mission for the DNC and most of their allies so far appears to be cutting Paul’s outreach off at the pass. When he’s spoken to African-American audiences about criminal justice reform, they’ve brought up his support for voting restrictions and his criticism of the Civil Rights Act. When he’s talked at college campuses about civil liberties, they’ve rolled out his greatest hits on social issues, including his opposition to gay marriage and criticism of the term “gay rights” because he doesn’t “believe in rights based on your behavior.”
The DNC’s call on Tuesday included 91-year old former Kentucky state senator Georgia Davis Powers, the first black woman elected to the body, who cited Paul’s Civil Rights Act troubles and said “his rationale is no different than that of the Southern business owners of my youth.” It also featured College Democrats of America president Natasha McKenzie, who told reporters Paul’s “opposition to marriage equality is a deal breaker for Millennials.”
Other progressive interest groups are taking the same approach. America’s Voice emailed reporters to say Paul was “not a ‘Different Kind of Republican’ on Immigration,” noting that, despite his tentative support for a path to citizenship, he voted against the 2013 bipartisan Senate bill. EMILY’s List declared that Paul “tries to brand himself as a ‘different’ kind of Republican – but his anti-choice, anti-woman policies are just more of the same.”
On foreign policy, Paul may be unique in that he attracts Democratic attacks from the right instead. Democrats assailed him on Tuesday for calling for an end to aid to Israel, for example, and previous DNC statements have accused him of a “blame America” approach to foreign policy. Paul has since renounced his position on Israel aid and tacked towards the hawks on other national security issues, including Iran, defense spending, and confronting ISIS.
Here things could be delicate as well. Hillary Clinton may be the overwhelming frontrunner to win her nomination, but the biggest weakness with her base is her relatively hawkish record. Going after Paul too hard could strike progressive critics as jingoist.
“She lost the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 because she voted for the Iraq War and steadfastly refused to apologize for that vote,” Republican strategist Liz Mair told msnbc. “There are a lot of voters out there who dissent from these foreign policy and civil liberties views, many in her own party, and to them, she’s the wackadoodle.”