US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who today is announcing his 2016 presidential bid, wants you to know he’s different. There he is, in his pre-announcement teaser video, promising to be “a different kind of Republican leader.” Decked out in blue jeans — politics may be the only field where wearing blue jeans is still transgressive — Paul calls for “a new way, a new set of ideas, a new leader.” To show just how different he is, he includes clips of MSNBC's Chris Matthews and "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart singing his praises.

Political journalists have long been fascinated by Paul. As the GOP began its post-2012 soul-searching, Paul emerged as the emblem of a Republican reorientation: a turn away from the religious right, away from big-government conservatism, away from its reliance on a rapidly aging, rapidly whitening base. The face of the much-discussed libertarian moment, he was presented as a new type of Republican, one who would support marriage equality and marijuana legalization, who would advocate smaller government abroad as well as at home. And yet it was Rand, not the Republicans, who changed.

In part, this was just a matter of mythology. As the poster boy for libertarianism, Paul became linked to a whole host of views he never held. For instance, in a 2013 piece pondering the GOP’s libertarian future, NPR talked about Paul as the party’s libertarian voice, then continued: “Today, majorities of Americans want to lower the debt, allow gay marriage and legalize marijuana. Those are not all traditional Republican values. But they are all libertarian ones.” Yet only one of those is a Rand Paul position. Paul has never sought to legalize non-medical marijuana. He has never viewed marriage equality as a basic right. He has never supported abortion access. In short, as the libertarian organ Reason — and Paul himself — have noted, Paul is not a libertarian.

But there was something different about him. He challenged the party’s neoconservative revival, opposing intervention in Libya and Syria. He was one of two Republicans to vote against reauthorizing the Patriot Act, and engaged in a famous 13-hour filibuster to protest U.S. drone policy (a filibuster that prompted Arizona Sen. John McCain to call him one of Congress' “wacko birds”). Yet as the national mood shifted back toward intervention, Paul found himself pinched between his reputation as a noninterventionist and the growing Republican appetite for military action abroad.

Nor was that his only problem. As Paul Waldman at the American Prospect noted, Republican candidates can’t stray too far from the party’s four pillars of low taxes, (rhetorically) small government, social conservatism and military strength. Eyeing the 2016 race, Paul slowly triangulated these positions, making the rounds on Christian radio, amplifying his support for Israeli and foreign aid, earmarking more funds for the military, and signing Sen. Tom Cotton’s letter to Iran about the questionable validity of any nuclear deal.

These pivots led Karen Tumulty and Robert Costa at the Washington Post to observe, “Paul is a candidate who has turned fuzzy, having trimmed his positions and rhetoric so much that it’s unclear what kind of Republican he will present himself as when he takes the stage.”

What Paul offers is not a libertarian strain but a libertarian style. His rhetoric sounds different — he emphasizes outreach to young people and minorities, talks about criminal justice reform and security state overreach — but now reflects a platform that differs in degree rather than kind from his Republican colleagues.

Ron Paul, Rand's father, once asked voters to join a revolution. In his teaser video, Rand Paul asked them to join a movement. But today that movement looks a whole lot like the tea party: passionate, anti-establishment and wholly contained within the traditional confines of the Republican Party.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report