Sen. Rand Paul continued to make 2016 waves in the wake of his March 14 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he furthered his argument that the Republican Party is “mossy” and “decaying,” badly in need of some fresh young blood in order to compete for votes in the West and Northeast and make up ground among younger voters. (i.e., the party needs to nominate him for president in 2016)
We can’t really argue with his first point, as more and more Republicans are beginning to realize the demographic disadvantage they now find themselves in. Their candidates and policy positions have badly damaged the GOP’s perception among three key demographics: Latinos (rapidly growing, and now heavily Democratic), women (the majority of voters who are not especially fond of the Limbaugh/Akin/Mourdock crowd, nor the party’s stance on reproductive rights), and young voters (swinging heavily toward Obama and the Democrats, most significantly when it comes to LGBT rights).
But as of the time of his CPAC speech, Rand Paul hardly seemed like the candidate to woo such voters. As we mentioned last week, Rand Paul’s rhetoric and policy positions on immigration were as far-right as can be, as he has proposed ending birthright citizenship, making English the official language, characterized undocumented immigrants as “illegals” who drain the welfare system and pose a threat to national security, and called the DREAM Act “amnesty” and a plot by Democratic “elitists” to swing elections their way. He was as far-right as possible on abortion, supporting a federal law that would outlaw all abortions and emergency contraception, and using the most over-the-top rhetoric imaginable to attack reproductive rights. And in terms of LGBT rights, Paul chooses to speak to social conservative groups and say things like “I didn’t think (Obama’s) views on marriage could get any gayer” after the president came out for marriage equality, and warns that the federal government is trying to indoctrinate children into accepting the scary gay agenda.
Then came Rand Paul’s immigration speech last week, where he made a giant reversal in his rhetoric toward immigration, if not his actual policy. After appearing to support a path to citizenship — though with a very long wait — he faced a barrage of conservative criticism, then scrambled to cover both sides of the fence. He claimed that while he might technically be for a path to citizenship, he’s not for using those exact words… because conservatives don’t like them.
Now, Rand Paul appears to be dipping his toes into dramatically changing his rhetoric and policy position on abortion.
Though Paul has twice scampered away from LEO when asked to square his small government philosophy with banning abortion on the federal level, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer cornered him on live television last Tuesday when he couldn’t run away without America laughing at him. Blitzer asked Paul — since he supports legislation defining a human life at the moment of conception — if he would allow exemptions for abortion in cases of rape. Though Paul has clearly and unambiguously stated that he is not for such exemptions — and defended Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock after they got into hot water over this — he sang a much different tune in his answer:
Blitzer : Just to be precise, if you believe life begins at conception, which I suspect you do, you would have no exceptions for rape, incest, the life of the mother, is that right?
Paul: I think that once again puts things in too small of a box. What I would say is there are thousands of exceptions. I’m a physician and every individual case is going to be different. Everything is going to be particular to that individual case and what is going on with that mother and the medical circumstances of that mother…. There are a lot of decisions made privately by families and doctors that really won’t, the law won’t apply to, but I think it is important we not be flippant one way or the other and pigeon hole and say this person doesn’t believe in any sort of discussion between family and physician.
Blitzer: It sounds like you believe in some exceptions.
Paul: Well, there is going to be, like I say, thousands of extraneous situations where the life of the mother is involved and other things that are involved so I would say that each individual case would have to be addressed and even if there were eventually a change in the law — let’s say people came more to my way of thinking — there would still be a lot of complicated things the law may not ultimately be able to address in the early stages of pregnancy that would have to be part of what occurs between the physician and the woman and the family.
“Thousands of exemptions?”
“There are a lot of decisions made privately by families and doctors that really won’t, the law won’t apply to?”
While these statements certainly don’t automatically make him a card-carrying board member of Planned Parenthood, there can be no doubt whatsoever that this language is a dramatic departure from Rand Paul’s past positions. (Ask conservatives and they will tell you the same.)
As was the case with his immigration comments, Paul responded to the conservative backlash with even more confusing spin that tried to cover both sides of the fence. His adviser told an anti-choice website that Paul remains “100 percent pro-life” — saying that “the health of the mother” should not be an exemption — though he has switched his position on emergency contraception, and does not address an exemption for rape victims. As you can imagine, some social conservatives remain unconvinced.
What happened with Paul’s rhetoric last week on immigration and abortion is obvious. Since 2009 when Paul began his Senate campaign, he has always portrayed himself as the anti-politician: someone who will tell it like it is, stand by his principles, and not bend to political pressure. But what he’s doing now is blatantly modifying his language in a way that makes him more appealing to moderate voters — looking ahead to his 2016 presidential race — while at the same time assuring the hard-right voters he needs to win the primary that his policy positions remain far-right and have not changed at all.
And that’s not just me. Conservative blog Hot Air echoes this theory:
Paul sounds in the clip as though he’s straining for a standard looser than that, which is odd given that he’s become known very quickly as a pol with impressive retail skills and a deft touch in communicating. Suddenly, over the past three days, he’s gotten verrrry hazy about immigration terminology and now abortion terminology — coincidentally, two issues that will be especially difficult when trying to split the difference between conservatives and libertarians in 2016. Is his new strategy to be just vague enough so that both sides can interpret his rhetoric as essentially agreeing with their position?
Of course, Paul’s attempt at this rhetorical three-card monte comes at a time when he’s also become the biggest cheerleader in America for the re-election of Sen. Mitch McConnell — the type of politician who embodies everything about the modern Republican Party that Rand Paul was against when he jumped into the political ring in 2009.
But that was back in 2009. Paul’s support of McConnell — more accurately, McConnell’s fundraising and power — just like his language on immigration and abortion, are now subject to modification, based on whatever purpose they serve toward meeting his new No. 1 goal: becoming president.
On Fox News yesterday, Paul did advocate one step that would legitimately make up ground for Republicans with young and moderate voters — which is mostly consistent with his past views — by saying that America should ease up on the wasteful and ill-advised Drug War. No arguments there, though the jury is still out on if most Republicans will get on board with him.
We’ll have to wait and see if Paul goes one step further in his game of three-card monte by switching up his rhetoric — if not actual policy — on LGBT rights in the near future. If so, keep your eye on the target, as Paul’s handiwork is getting faster (and we promise we won’t say that Paul’s views are getting “gayer”).