Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul doesn’t need to win the presidency to revolutionize the Republican Party. He just needs to get nominated.
More than fifty years have passed since the GOP chose a non-establishment candidate to lead its national ticket. Even when their base could only muster tepid enthusiasm for its standard-bearer (see Mitt Romney), the primaries have had a way of weeding out iconoclasts and only leaving “safe” candidates standing. Yet Rand Paul, despite his attempts to smooth the edges off his libertarian image, represents a fundamental break from the Republican consensus. With his vocal opposition to military adventurism and the war on drugs, and his calls to reform the Federal Reserve and the criminal justice system, Paul’s nomination would force American voters to reevaluate the GOP brand.
That brand has remained remarkably unchanged since 1968 – a fact that has given the party two inestimable advantages. First, it has provided Republicans with a litany of nominees who, though occasionally lackluster, are non-controversial enough to be electable (hence their victories in seven of the 10 national contests between 1968 and 2004). Beyond that, it has guaranteed that Americans of all ideological stripes tend to have a consistent, concrete idea of what a “Republican” actually is.
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This last fact, though perhaps harder to quantify, is one of the most important realities in contemporary American politics. Although the Republican Party is inextricably identified with conservatism today, its national image has evolved considerably throughout its history. For the thirty years prior to the 1964 presidential election, GOP presidential candidates had been moderate liberals who, though critical of the welfare state constructed by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, promised only to modify progressive economic and social programs instead of doing away with them altogether. The last major Republican statesman to openly oppose Cold War interventionism was Sen. Robert Taft, whose ideas lost their credibility after his defeat at the hands of Dwight Eisenhower during the 1952 Republican National Convention.
The 1964 election changed everything. By leading a grassroots conservative insurgency against the party’s moderate liberal establishment, Sen. Barry Goldwater won the Republican presidential nomination and, in the process, pulled off one of the great political upsets of modern history. Unlike his predecessors, Goldwater had a reputation as an unapologetic right-wing extremist, particularly on economic issues (he called for the complete dismantling of the post-FDR welfare state), civil rights (he opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as an infringement on states’ rights), and foreign policy (he favored a more vigorous prosecution of the Cold War).
Many of the party’s leaders refused to endorse him, opting instead to either sit the election out or actively back the Democratic nominee, President Lyndon Johnson. On Election Day, Goldwater found himself on the losing end of one of the most one-sided popular landslide in American history, garnering only 38.5% of the vote to Johnson’s 61.1%.
After Goldwater’s defeat, Republican leaders learned that internal divisions could not be allowed to manifest themselves on the national political level. Even as the party drifted from the centrism of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford to the conservatism of Ronald Reagan and his successors, the GOP establishment made sure no dark horse candidates could ever foist an unpleasant surprise on them again. It is telling that the Reagan Revolution, despite being driven by the same ideological premises that tanked Goldwater’s candidacy, succeeded precisely because Reagan was widely considered the frontrunner when he sought the party’s nomination in 1980.
Although Paul has already pivoted somewhat to his party’s center, it will be impossible to fully reconcile his platform with the philosophy widely associated with Reagan Republicanism. Indeed, even though Paul was elected as part of the anti-establishment Tea Party wave in 2010, many of his libertarian views are outside of the mainstream for that movement as well. His outspoken criticism of American interventionism overseas runs against the grain of neoconservatism; his belief that the drug wars need to be curbed and our prison-industrial complex scaled back, though potentially appealing to minorities, are likewise anathema to the party’s traditionally reactionary “law and order” voters. Even his economic proposals, though conservative in many ways, threaten institutions that most Republicans either support or know little about – specifically the Federal Reserve.
In short, if Paul gets the nomination, the simple fact that he will be the face of the Republican Party during the 2016 election would constitute a major transformation. If nothing else, it would demonstrate that the GOP is no longer able to effectively stifle internal divisions, a problem that has grown during Obama’s presidency. His nomination would also constitute a generational passing of the torch to younger Republicans, who lean increasingly libertarian – in that way, the Rand revolution is already very real. At most, it could push the party consensus toward a more libertarian view, just as Goldwater’s nomination in 1964 moved the party mainstream toward today’s conservatism.
Either way, political junkies should buckle up. They’re in for quite a show.
Matthew Rozsa is getting his PhD in American history from Lehigh University and is a regular contributor to The Daily Dot, Salon, and The Good Men Project. In the past he has written for Mic, and appeared on Huff Post Live and the CBC.