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As Christie Collapses, Can Rand Paul Rise?

For those watching politics on the American right these days, the clown show that is the run-up to the 2016 Republican presidential nomination contest is turning out to be non-stop entertainment. Already potential candidates are positioning themselves for a run at the White House and the media, bored as usual, is running wild with speculation as to who will or won’t run.

In the midst of all this, perhaps nothing has been more fun to watch than the capsizing of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s presidential ambitions. Christie, an alleged moderate who had been tapped by many wags as a strong contender in 2016, looks to be collapsing under the weight of a growing abuse-of-power scandal that has rocked the New Jersey statehouse and seems to be centered on Christie himself.

“Seems” is the operative word here since no actual indictments have been handed down as of yet, but subpoenas are flying and close Christie associates and political allies will soon have to start testifying about their, and the governor’s, role in the unnecessary closing of the George Washington Bridge late this past summer. Even worse for Christie, his adroit, nonpartisan handling of Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath – seen as an asset by most political analysts – has now been tarnished by allegations that he was strong-arming mayors with Federal storm relief money, approval for which went entirely through his office.

It may be that no matter what he does, Senator Paul will be unable to shake off either his father or his own past associations to be acceptable enough to the mainstream Republican opinion-makers and voters

Whatever the role the New Jersey governor has played in these scandals, the consensus so far is that he has suffered significant damage as a result. Christie’s national poll numbers, for instance, have sunk to 35-percent favorability, a fall of 17 points from the last poll. Worse, the New Jersey governor’s national unfavorable ratings have doubled to 40 percent while his in-state job approval by New Jersey voters has fallen to 48 percent from 60 percent. Clearly, Christie has been hurt.

This means that the ongoing race between putative candidates for the Republican nomination is now wide open as never before. For a party that normally has a more-or-less designated nominee election after election, the lack of an obvious candidate for the money men, Washington insiders, and conservative activists to rally around is astounding. Perhaps no time in recent memory has the presidential nomination of one of America’s major parties been so up in the air this far out. No one – absolutely no one – knows who the nominee will be.

In this political chaos a number of individuals have made claim to the Republican throne, but so far none have the mix of name recognition, experience, gravitas, or money necessary to put him or her ahead of the pack. The one candidate who might qualify as having such political assets – former governor Jeb Bush of Florida – theoretically has all of the above, but given the bitter aftertaste the last Bush in the White House left in the electorate’s mouths it seem unlikely, at present, that he will run.

With Christie perhaps fatally weakened and Jeb Bush a potential no show, who is left? Recent polls have indicated a smattering of interest in the likes of Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who was Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, but unfortunately for him presidents generally don’t come from the U.S. House. Other potential candidates include Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Governor Walker of Wisconsin, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, and even retreads like former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and McCain running mate and half-term Alaska governor, Sarah Palin.

Of these candidates, however, none have quite the potential of Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Elected in 2010 as part of the Tea-Party reaction against President Obama, Senator Paul, the son of perennial Republican presidential candidate Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, has inherited a unique position in American politics as his father’s ostensible political heir. With this support, could Senator Paul power through the assorted opposition to win his party’s nomination in 2016?

As the New York Times has written recently, Senator Paul is attempting to potentially do just this by straddling a precarious political chasm that divides the far-right conspiratorial and libertarian wings of the GOP – the part of the conservative movement that believes in ending the drug war, staying out of foreign conflicts, the sanctity of the gold standard, and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is secretly building concentration camps across the country – from his party’s establishment wing. He’s done this mostly by distancing himself from the former while simultaneously presenting himself as an acceptable figure from that wing of the party that establishment types can accept.

The problem with this strategy, of course, is that no matter how much Senator Paul tries to establish the fact that he is not his father, and thus in theory free of his father’s crazier political baggage, there nonetheless remains a significant shadow his father and the far-right casts that remains to be walked out from under. Among these are early statements by Senator Paul on whether parts of the Civil Rights Act are constitutional, his onetime employment of an aide linked to pro-Southern Civil War revisionism, and a general association with the paranoid, know-nothing, black-helicopter right.

In previous years this would have disqualified Senator Paul, let alone his father, from any prospect of higher office in anything but the most backwater districts, but times are changing in conservative America. One analysis, for instance, suggests that the political coalition between big business, the wealthy, neo-liberal market fundamentalists, foreign-policy hawks, domestic anti-communists, and social conservatives that was constructed by William F. Buckley, Jr. in the 1950s and cemented into power by Ronald Reagan in 1980 is far along in the process of falling apart.

Out of this collapse – wrought by the horrific incompetence of the George W. Bush administration – political factions that were once taken for granted and condescended to by the major components of what used to be Cold War conservatism are now making a play for power. The most prominent of these groups are the old fashioned paleo-conservatives of the Pat Buchanan variety – folks whose views mostly mirror that of pre-Second World War Republicans, and libertarians. Ron Paul, being a familiar figure with both groups, has naturally given his son a leg-up amongst them.

rand_paulThe disadvantage for Senator Paul here is that even though he is his father’s heir and a natural choice for this group of people, he has a legion of competition on the right in exactly this stretch of political spectrum. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, for instance, is essentially a longhorn version of Paul while Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan is similarly a Paul clone. Likewise, other candidates like Wisconsin’s Walker and Alaska’s Palin position themselves somewhat similarly along this paleo-libertarian conservative spectrum.

This has diminished Senator Paul’s natural monopoly over this portion of the conservative electorate and diluted his chances accordingly – which is why he has of late reached out to establishment elders like Karl Rove. Paul faces several problems in turning to the likes of Rove, though. The first, of course, is that in aligning with the GOP establishment, no matter how nebulously, he will tarnish his image with the libertarian faithful. To some extent this has already happened as Paul’s Clintonesque positioning has left him with a more hawkish position on Iran than his libertarian compatriots would like as well as a hard-right position on abortion – Paul wrote a personhood bill while Senator – they may endear him to social conservatives but certainly alienates most libertarians.

Also problematic is that even as Paul makes an effort to endear himself with powerful establishment types, his association with the libertarian faithful and the paleo-conservative throwbacks will tar him no matter how much he tries to distance himself. This is especially the case now in the information age when embarrassing clips of him attempting to explain opposition to parts of the Civil Rights Act or appearing alongside conspiracy orientated talk-radio hosts can live on forever on the Internet. If an establishment candidate emerges out of the Christie collapse, rest assured those clips will play on as vicious attack ads against Senator Paul if he chooses to run.

It may be that no matter what he does, Senator Paul will be unable to shake off either his father or his own past associations to be acceptable enough to the mainstream Republican opinion-makers and voters – those that are left, anyway – who are crucial in party caucuses and primary elections. If a viable establishment candidate emerges, then Senator Paul will inevitably fail as the center of the Republican electorate swings to embrace whoever that candidate happens to be – if, that is, the Republican electorate in 2016 continues to look as it has during past election cycles.

On the other hand, the Christie crack-up could show that there are in fact no viable establishment candidates capable of uniting the party. In such a case, Paul’s positioning could turn out to be a genius move as it positions him to appeal to both the old establishment and the newly empowered paleo-libertarian right. This would allow Senator Paul to potentially dominate the center of a new conservative electorate that differs from the coalition built by Buckley and Reagan in many important ways.

Whether Senator Paul has chosen the right path to the nomination remains to be seen, but it is certainly the case that he’s taken quite the gamble on where the center of the political right now happens to be.So, for that reason alone Senator Paul bears watching as how he fares politically could be an indicator of the new balance of power that now exists between American conservatism’s various feuding parts. 2016 may be a long way off, yet, but it could very well be that so goes Paul, so goes the nation – or at least half of it.

(Reprinted with permission of MintPress. This column originally ran at
http://www.mintpressnews.com/christie-collapses-can-rand-paul-rise/178755/

Jeffrey Cavanaugh

Jeffrey Cavanaugh

Contributing Writer
Jeffrey Cavanaugh holds a Ph.D in political science with a specialization in International Relations from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Formerly an assistant professor of political science and public administration at Mississippi State University, he writes on global affairs and international economics for AFK Insider, Mint Press News and BAMSouth.com and lives in Metairie, Louisiana.
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