Opinion

Rand Paul's incoherence is his best asset

The 2016 candidate is still puzzling out his positions on really tough issues. This is not an insult.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who Tuesday made formal his always-but-not-officially-certain campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, is a hard politician to pigeonhole. More a meerkat than a chameleon, he pops up in odd places on the binary left-to-right political spectrum that still organizes how the media covers campaigns. And so, as his own campaign team acknowledged with a tongue-in-cheek video, he is just, really, well, "interesting.”

Is he a "fiery, uncompromising" libertarian? A libertarian who got mugged by the reality of governing? A conservative opportunist who seeks out unclaimed territory by play-acting a maverick? As the press struggles to label him, Paul's plunge into the primaries has the potential to upconvert his opponents. His value to Republicans is that his final position on a number of issues cannot be predicted from his past statements. This is valuable, and not a knock against him, because his unpredictability will force the rest of the field to respond in real time to a politician who seems willing to change his mind.

Paul can't quite acknowledge his penchant for inconsistency, because there's a convention in politics that equates consistency with strength. But it's perhaps his most genuine quality. In August, Ann Coulter, who eloquently channels the id of the right, called him a compass. She was not being nice. "It used to be whatever would please 15-year-old Ayn Rand readers was his position. Now, it's whatever will please basically the mainstream media."

Paul here had flopped on foreign aid, specifically aid to Israel. Elsewhere, he hasn't really settled on how to talk about immigration policy, at once cautioning his own party to avoid seeming so hostile while being hostile to comprehensive reform proposals that he might otherwise support. He is, like all elected men and women, somewhat craven, and somewhat fearful of throwing darts at the voters he needs to win the nomination.

But there's a genuineness to his interestingness, and if you listen to him for a while, you get the sense that he's puzzling out his positions on issues, just like the rest of us do. His political mind is not fully formed. This is not an insult.

On some issues, particularly the ones he care about, he hasn't budged. True to his background, he instinctively opposes the National Security Agency's collection of telephone records. (That's his biggest applause line, according to The New York Times.)

He is also taken with criminal justice reform. He really wants to reduce the number of black men in prison. He says so, and has sketched out some ideas of how he might achieve this. Since Republicans have long used racial coding in their rhetoric to win the hearts of a certain type of white voter, his candor has to be authentic.

And then, there are the rest of the issues. He's fuzzy because he doesn't care as much, and because he weathervanes as well as the next politician. Also: These issues are just really hard. Has any Republican got a better way to fight ISIS? Paul aligns with a lot of Americans when he promises to be the "one loud voice in our party saying, think of the unintended consequence." Of war, he means. He continued, per CNN: "Think about what we're going to accomplish and whether it will work before we go to war. I promise you that will always be something I take very, very seriously."

This reflexive unreflexiveness is what will keep his opponents on edge. Paul himself is not dangerous, yet, to the other, more established Republicans who are running. But his viewpoints might be. There's a reason why Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and others are quick to lump Paul's foreign policy views in with the dastardly President Obama's. It's because they're afraid that those views really do reflect the consensus within their party, and they oppose their proliferation as ardently as if Paul was actually promoting Iranian nuclear weapons.

I think one reason why Paul stays silent on the hot-button issues du jour is that he hasn't quite figured out what to say about them. That's a good thing — for us, for him, for his opponents, and even for the Republican Party.

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