The Hipster Veneer of Paul ’16 Will Wear Off Soon

The more you look at the emerging 2016 Republican presidential contest, the more it seems a competition between different “electability” theories of how a party that’s not exactly in synch with public opinion and has a bad reputation to boot can win without losing the “conservative principles” GOPers soon hope to be applying in office.

Jeb Bush offers the conventional “don’t drift too far from the center” prescription, which serves as a warning to ideologues not to reject him for heresies on issues like immigration and education where general election voters just don’t agree with the Republican “base.” Ted Cruz is promoting the ancient Phyllis Schlafly “choice not an echo” argument that the sharpest possible partisan differentiation is the key to victory. Scott Walker has no clear explanation for why he has cross-partisan appeal despite his atavistic conservative governing style, but he can grunt and point to his three wins in Wisconsin as evidence he does.

Then there’s Rand Paul. And as I argued in this week’s column at TPMCafe, Paul’s electability argument is that conservatives can get an even more reactionary administration from him than from the others when it comes to the core issues of the size of government and economic policy, if only they’ll bend on issues that can attract whole new constituencies.

Put simply, Paul offers limited-government conservatives an interesting bargain: They can take America right back to the economic and social policies of the Coolidge Administration—if they give up spying on, imprisoning and sending off to war young people and minorities.

The problem, of course, is that the attractiveness of this bargain depends on how much of the spying, imprisoning and war-making agenda Republicans are willing to give up for electoral victory, and also their assessments of Paul’s credibility as a vote magnet for young and minority voters. So potentially the candidate himself is caught in a negative dialectic wherein accommodations of conventional conservatives reduce his attractiveness to those outside the Cause. And that in turn reduces the “electability” advantage which makes him attractive to those who might otherwise prefer the uncompromising Ted Cruz or Scott Walker.

My sense of things right now is that the GOP nominating process is going to wear off the hipster veneer of Paul ’16 and expose him as a conventional–and where not conventional, then an alarmingly extremist–right-wing ideologue who has no appeal to minority voters and reduced appeal to young-uns. You can already see that happening on foreign policy:

[T]he CW and the public opinion climate among conservatives are demanding that all Republicans more or less support a re-invasion of Iraq, a bellicose posture towards Iran, a blank check for Bibi Netanyahu, and more defense spending. So far Paul is hanging in there, though one can only imagine what Ron Paul thought of his son signing onto Tom Cotton’s letter to Tehran. But the once-fashionable idea that young voters might flock to a Paul-led GOP as the “peace party” in contrast to the “hawkish” Democrats led by Hillary Clinton is becoming increasingly laughable.

I didn’t put this in the column, but the Paul campaign kinda reminds me of people in churches who think they can get teenagers and young adults to show up if they abandon traditional music and bring out the guitars and all that 1970s Hootenanny mood. Could be the young-uns aren’t quite as superficial as the good church folk think, and meanwhile, the old folks can’t keep a beat to save their lives. It will be interesting to see how long it takes conservatives to figure out that Rand Paul isn’t going to get 40% of the black vote or become a youth cult figure. But when it happens, the game will be up:

[T]he odds are good that Rand Paul’s candidacy will come to represent less a “big tent” where traditional conservatives happily mingle with entirely new constituencies than what Ron Paul’s campaigns ultimately became: people handing out tracts on the margins of the same old crowd of elderly white folks, and maybe drifting off to smoke dope under the rafters and dream of revolutions.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.