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What is 'conservative realism,' and can it push Rand Paul to White House? (+video)

Sen. Rand Paul, a presumed Republican candidate for president in 2016, spoke of 'conservative realism' in a speech this week. It is one prong of his strategy to attract voters beyond the Republican base.

In 2000, George W. Bush rode to the presidency with his vision of "compassionate conservatism" – a brand of Republicanism that sought to take the hard edges off conservative doctrine to make it more appealing to women, minorities, and young Americans. This week, Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky put forth his vision for "conservative realism" – a brand of Republicanism that aims to appeal to a war-weary public and a Millennial generation with a strong libertarian streak.

It would appear to be one prong of Senator Paul's bold attempt to do what Mr. Bush and Ronald Reagan successfully did before – and which Republican presidential candidates have failed to do since. To win the White House, Republicans must cobble together a bloc of voters broader than the Republican base, yet they must not abandon core Republican ideals. 

In Paul's case, a new brand of practical libertarianism is the bridge. By increasingly addressing issues ranging from voter identification to restoring voting rights for felons to marijuana decriminalization, he has hinted at how he might steal independent, black, and young Democratic voters should he run for president in 2016. Now, with "conservative realism," he is attempting to burnish his credentials on arguably his weakest front, at least among Republican voters: foreign policy. It is a merging of principle with the facts on the ground, and it points to the nature of his delicate balancing act.

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“To have a winning position and a winning coalition, he has to cobble together a fragile group,” says Timothy Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

The potential Republican field for 2016 remains remarkably hazy, in stark contrast to the Democratic field, where Hillary Rodham Clinton is the clear front-runner should she declare. The RealClearPolitics average of major polls puts Paul, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christe, and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin all within 1.2 percentage points of one another.

While Paul is not likely to be the establishment candidate, he is poised to be a major player in the nomination. Thursday’s foreign policy speech was was aimed in part at separating himself from his staunchly isolationist father, former Rep. Ron Paul, while also addressing the concerns of the generally hawkish Republican mainstream. In the process, he laid out a vision that bridges Code Pink war protesters and libertarian isolationists.

The principle: "Americans want strength and leadership, but that doesn't mean they see war as the only solution." In the speech at the Center for the National Interest in New York City, Paul cited a litany of foreign policy entanglements and argued that a common thread was a national inability to distinguish between "vital interests and more peripheral interests" overseas.

That failure, he said, means that "our allies and our enemies are unsure where America stands," leading to national security consequences. He went on to say: "Reagan had it right when he spoke to potential adversaries: 'Our reluctance for conflict should not be misjudged as a failure of will.' "

The goal was to lay out a concrete sense of what his libertarian policies mean in a real-world context, says Professor Hagle.

"When you talk about conservatism versus realism, it's the same difference as theory and reality, and that's what he's trying to bridge," he says. "In other words: These principles are great, but we have to also deal with hard facts on the ground and make decisions accordingly."

In working to make his idealism concrete and palatable across party lines, Paul strikes some as a libertarian version of Barack Obama, circa 2006.

"In some respects, Paul is to Republicans in 2014 what Barack Obama was to Democrats in 2006: the Party’s most prized fund-raiser and its most discussed senator, willing to express opinions unpopular within his party, and capable of energizing younger voters," writes Ryan Lizza in a New Yorker profile published Oct. 6. 

Some connections will be hard to break, though. Before winning his Senate seat in the tea party wave of 2010, Paul spent his formative years as his father’s closest political aide and strategist, helping to engineer several of his victories – but also, in running his dad’s 2008 presidential campaign, witnessing first-hand the lack of appeal of an absolutist world view.

He could find it hard to build a bigger tent for his campaign, given some of his father's – and his own – past statements. His father, in an essay in the 1970s, suggested that most black men in the District of Columbia were criminals. And Rand Paul's own libertarian views have led him to argue, as late as 2002, that US agencies like the Federal Housing Administration shouldn't rein in discrimination the way they have.

Paul wrote that, though it is “unenlightened and ill-informed to promote discrimination against individuals based on the color of their skin,” a free society “will abide unofficial, private discrimination – even when that means allowing hate-filled groups to exclude people based on the color of their skin.”

Contrast that with what he has done since joining the Senate. Though he has not repudiated his former view, he has cosponsored a bill that would return the voting franchise to those who have completed felony sentences in prison, and he has suggested he would support using money saved from closing prisons to fund job training programs. Both are policy prescriptions supported by many African-American politicians.

Paul was also one of the only conservatives to take umbrage at a militarized crackdown on protesters – most of whom were black – in Ferguson, Mo., writing in Time magazine that “it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them.”

In the end, Paul's battle plan is an audacious one: Using his libertarian ideas to build a broader base of support while at the same time reassuring mainstream Republicans that he is not too libertarian. Some experts say it might be a bridge too far. 

"I know he's moving up and he's very ambitious, but I cannot conceive of him being the Republican nominee in 2016," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta and author of "Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics." "His views are too far removed from most people in the Republican Party."

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