Rand Paul and Late-Regime Politics

It’s too early to speculate about the 2016 presidential nominations. But that’s not stopping anyone. Pundits seems especially preoccupied with the much storied but unlikely candidacy of Rand Paul. Last week Andrew Prokop wrote at Vox.com about the major obstacles to a Paul nomination, which wisely quoted Hans’ insights on the subject. Yesterday, Frank Bruni took a similarly dim view, suggesting that Rand Paul is a “one-adjective pony.”

For the actual outcome of the 2016 nomination contests and general elections, Rand Paul may not be very significant. But the attention to his possible candidacy indicates something about the state of presidential and party politics. The recent Rand Paul fascination indicates that we are nearing the end of the Reagan regime (where “regime” means dominant party).

In the formulation first offered by Stephen Skowronek in the mid-1990s, the idea of political time cycles works like this: new regime replaces old. A new coalition forms around a set of animating ideas and established authority by breaking with the past. As time goes on, that coalition begins to fray. Disagreement among factions occurs, and the ideological commitments of the dominant party become irrelevant and contradictory. Think Andrew Jackson- Polk- Pierce, or FDR-LBJ-Carter. Jackson and FDR built their respective regimes, Polk and LBJ expanded – but also fractured – the dominant political order. Carter and Pierce were what Skowronek called “disjunctive” leaders, who attempted, unsuccessfully, to reinvigorate regimes in the midst of collapse.

The nomination politics of each era have their own pathologies. But a common feature of late regime politics is that people both within and outside party coalitions start to look for presidential candidates who will resolve emergent contradictions and affirm regime ideology in new ways. In the wake of Johnson’s presidency, the New Deal coalition became internally divided on issues of expanding the social safety net, on foreign policy, and, of course, on civil rights and race. Jimmy Carter, a Southern governor who was considered liberal on racial issues, embodied a kind of reconciliation of this tension.

Writing about Franklin Pierce as a late-regime leader in the 1850s, Skowronek notes, “it became far more difficult to draw the line between orthodoxy in national Democratic politics.” (177, 2nd edition) When applied to Rand Paul, this also seems to illustrate twenty-first century Republicans politics pretty well. Paul’s stances on foreign policy and mass incarceration break sharply with important Republican commitments during the Reagan era – toughness on crime and on enemies abroad. At the same time, these stances reaffirm the deeper ideological tenets of contemporary conservatism: opposition to the growth of government and the impediments to personal liberty posed by taxes and government surveillance. In other words, Paul takes up the “maverick” mantle (which was unceremoniously shed by John McCain in 2008, but that’s another post entirely), and does so by making claims to ideological purity.

None of this means anything for the (remote) chances of a Rand Paul nomination. But the continued interest in him indicates tensions characteristic of a dominant party regime on its way out. In turn, this has implications for some big questions in American politics. One is whether political time is a useful or falsifiable theory. If you read political time as a typology that determines the opportunities and constraints for presidents, then it is a pretty limited and perhaps tautological framework. But a deeper reading suggests that what really matters is what presidential leadership does to political coalitions and political ideas. This reading of the political time thesis can help us understand how political parties behave at different points in regime development.

For those who already buy the general idea of political time, the fascination with Rand Paul bears on the question of whether we are still in a declining Reagan regime, or an ascendant Democratic one started by Obama. I’ve been consistently in the former camp, but not everyone shares that view. The idea that an “orthodox heretic” like Paul could reconcile the contradictions of Reagan conservatism suggests that disjunctive politics lie ahead.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.