Via MFP, an eyebrow-raiser from yesterday’s chat with David Axelrod(!) at the University of Chicago. David Corn and Mother Jones are out with another gotcha piece on Paul this morning citing his (mild) criticism of Reagan in the past for not cutting spending more as president, but this clip is more interesting, I think. Knocking the Gipper for not doing enough to shrink government is Libertarianism 101; even mainstream conservatives who venerate him will grudgingly concede that they wish he’d done better before quickly adding that he did what he could with a liberal Congress. And needless to say, no one’s going to stand onstage next to Paul at the 2015 primary debates and rip him for criticizing deficit spending. It’s okay to criticize Reagan as long as you’re respectful and as long as you’re doing it from the right.

So forget the Mother Jones piece. What about this exchange with Axelrod, though? MFP headlines the clip, “Rand Paul: Relax, I’m not going to ban abortion” — which does seem a fair interpretation of what Paul’s saying. (Maybe it’d be fairer to say, “Rand Paul: Relax, I’m not going to ban abortion anytime soon.”) He notes that he believes that life begins at conception and points out, correctly, that the public takes a middle-ground approach to abortion in most polls. They support giving women a right to terminate in the first trimester, oppose giving them that right in the third trimester, and usually take a skeptical “if necessary” view of the second trimester. If anything, says Paul, current law is far too biased towards the pro-abortion view since it effectively allows for terminations in the third trimester too, which most Americans believe should be illegal. Axelrod, though, keeps pressing: What does that mean we should or could expect from President Paul once in office? Paul’s answer: Not much. Certainly not an all-out ban; there’s still much persuading to be done before most Americans come around to that view. Presumably, if public opinion changes while he’s in office, he’d consider a ban. If it doesn’t, presumably he wouldn’t. Maybe he’d try at least to bring the law in line with opinion by banning terminations in the third trimester, but judge for yourself at the end here whether you think he’d push on that.

You can see what he’s trying to do with this answer. He’s pitching himself as a “different kind of Republican,” someone who can appeal to young voters and minorities in a way that no one else in the party can. One splashy way to do that is to position himself as a pro-life but modest, incrementalist candidate on abortion; not only will it make the left’s “war on women” demagoguery a bit harder but it might also reassure libertarians, not all of whom are as pro-life as the Pauls are, that he hasn’t completely sold out to conservatives in running for the GOP nomination. Meanwhile, though, he’ll be lambasted for this by whoever ends up as the social-conservative champion in the primaries — maybe Huckabee, maybe Santorum, maybe (most dangerously of all for Paul) Ted Cruz. If abortion is morally equivalent to slavery, as many social cons believe, then Paul’s approach is intolerable. He’d have a moral duty to work with the legislature and the courts to ban it, whatever the political consequences. Paul can sustain an attack like that from Huck or Santorum, I think, because they’re niche candidates who aren’t competing with him for the wider grassroots conservative vote. I’m not so sure he can sustain it from Cruz, who is competing. The question for Cruz is, how forcefully does he want to push the “ban at all costs” position? It might give him an opening against Paul in the primaries but it’d also make things easier for Democrats in attacking him in the general. Paul is right about the polling on this. It’s purely a question of how the GOP wants to deal with the reality of it.

Update: Ramesh Ponnuru notes that it’s hard to call Paul wishy-washy on this topic when he’s the lead sponsor of the “Life at Conception Act.” Right, but it’s one thing for a legislator to float a bill and another for a president, with his bully-pulpit power to set agendas, to push for it. The question raised by the clip, I think, is what sort of priority abortion would be for Paul as president. He’s right that it’ll take lots of persuasion to build congressional support to act. Would a “different kind of Republican” be willing to do that? Many of the not-so-different kinds haven’t been in the past.

Update: Matt Lewis responds:

Yeah, but what if you’ve spent 40 years making the argument against abortion and the public still supports terminations in the first trimester? Should you ban it anyway, assuming you have the votes in Congress, or do you bow to public opinion? That’s what makes the Paul clip interesting. The public opposed ObamaCare in 2010 and that didn’t stop Democrats from passing it anyway. They’ve paid a price for that politically, but Nancy Pelosi herself said recently that it was all worth it. Would the next GOP president agree?

Update: Good point by John McCormack. One reason Paul is respected on the right is because he’s a man of principle. Agree or disagree, but when it comes to libertarian priorities like shrinking government or surveillance, he fights hard for what he thinks is right whether or not the public agrees. Why the difference in abortion?

Update: Almost forgot — here’s what Paul said not long ago about another hot-button social issue.

[Q:] Right. But it seems what they’re saying is that the Republican Party should stay out of issues like gay marriage.

[A:] I think that the Republican Party, in order to get bigger, will have to agree to disagree on social issues. The Republican Party is not going to give up on having quite a few people who do believe in traditional marriage. But the Republican Party also has to find a place for young people and others who don’t want to be festooned by those issues.

Not unlike Mitch Daniels’s “truce” comment on social issues. If Rand’s trying to build the party by pushing his core issues, namely, smaller government and protecting civil liberties, a strong push on abortion or gay marriage might alienate some of the voters he’s trying to reach. Again: How much of a priority would social issues be to his administration?