If Rand Paul could travel back in time a week and take a do-over on his 2016 presidential campaign roll-out, he probably would.
His opening speech was largely inspiring as it laid out his vision for a country more in line with his libertarian instincts. But it led with a bit of rhetorical bombast that’s been heard thousands of times: “We have come to take our country back.” Which prompted singer-songwriter Jill Sobule to pen a raunchy, satirical song on Huffington Post.
The Kentucky senator made the obligatory genuflection to Republican icon Ronald Reagan, declaring: “I envision a national defense that promotes, as Reagan put it, peace through strength.”
But then he continued, “I believe in applying Reagan’s approach to foreign policy to the Iran issue.” He was referring to Reagan’s “trust, but verify” position regarding the former Soviet Union’s nuclear missiles, but he might have phrased it differently.
As political scientist Jack Pitney writes elsewhere in the Monitor:
“In late 1986, we learned that the Reagan administration had sold arms to Iran and diverted the proceeds to Nicaraguan anticommunist rebels called the Contras…. The Iran-Contra affair was a fiasco that humiliated the United States and led to talk that the House might impeach Reagan.”
Then there were Paul’s run-ins with the press this week following his presidential launch.
He wrangled with Philip Elliot of the Associated Press when he would not articulate his position on possible exceptions to a ban on abortion (rape or incest, for example). He appeared to lecture Savannah Guthrie of NBC News when she summarized his views on foreign policy.
“The crankiness of his announcement-week interviews certainly suggests that he’s still getting a handle on retail politics,” Jim Rutenberg observed in the New York Times Magazine.
“I think that there’s more editorializing going on than questioning sometimes,” Paul told the New York Times. “And I, frankly, sometimes get annoyed with that. And I don’t hide it very well.”
Fair point. The highly competitive world of cable and network political coverage has moved well into the realm of “gotcha” questioning, although on the part of politicians it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between full, nuanced answers and filibustering to avoid a direct answer.
But complaining about the press is seldom a winning tactic. As Mark Twain said back in the days before broadcast, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.”
“The perception of Paul as not only resistant to tough questions but mocking and dismissive of them is not a good one,” writes Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post. “Paul needs to understand that the political campaign he has just embarked on is a very different thing than his 2010 Senate campaign in Kentucky.”
“The level of scrutiny, the number of people always watching and the hurdles of credibility are all much, much higher,” Cillizza writes. “Coming across as thin-skinned when faced with the gentlest of ‘tough’ questions isn't a very encouraging development for those who would like to see Paul emerge as the GOP's standard-bearer sometime next year.”
Part of Paul’s problem is that he is the son of one who ran for the White House several times – former US Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas – and whose strong libertarian bent included an attitude toward foreign affairs that was non-interventionist bordering on the isolationist.
Some of Rand Paul’s conservative critics accuse him of supporting current negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
“Rand Paul is wrong and dangerous,” says the narrator in an attack ad paid for by the Foundation for a Security and Prosperous America. “Tell him to stop siding with Obama.”
The ad is being broadcast on TV stations in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada – the four states with the earliest presidential primaries and caucuses – as well as nationally on Fox News, according to Politico.com.
More broadly, says Senator Mike Lee (R) of Utah, “Ron Paul had some fairly unique, idiosyncratic views on certain foreign policy issues that make some people nervous, and there are some who automatically assume that Rand Paul shares those views even where he doesn’t express them, even where he’s expressed sentiments that depart markedly from those of his father.”
“I think that’s a challenge that he’s going to have to overcome,” Sen. Lee said at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast Friday.”
At the moment, Rand Paul is doing relatively well in the polls – in fourth place at 9.8 percent, behind Ted Cruz (10.5), Scott Walker (15.3), and Jeb Bush (16.5), according to the Real Clear Politics polling average, and ahead of everybody else.
There are many months before the first presidential primaries and caucuses, which Ron Paul did quite well in, although he never won the nomination. Rand Paul will want to smooth out his positions and presentation before then.