Rand Paul on Ted Cruz: We need a conservative nominee with "winnability"

I did … not think we’d be seeing Rand, of all people, making electability arguments at the expense of other candidates, but if there’s any guy in the field whom Democrats would demagogue more gleefully than they would him, I suppose it’s Cruz.

The money line here comes when he talks about “not just throwing out red meat, but throwing out something intellectually enticing to people who haven’t been listening to our message before.” That’ll be his core attack on Cruz throughout the primaries, partly of necessity since there’s not much that divides them on policy (by Paul’s own admission). If you want a guy who’ll preach to the choir and only to the choir, vote Cruz; if you want a guy who’ll preach to a skeptical audience at Howard University about the virtues of liberty, vote Rand. That’s been Paul’s message for two years now — that he can make the party bigger like no one else because he’s willing and able to advance a right-wing agenda which, on certain matters like medical marijuana, overlaps with traditionally “moderate” or even liberal positions. Cruz’s reply to that will be his favored line about painting in “bold colors, not pale pastels,” which holds that a traditional conservative agenda, championed in hopeful, unapologetic terms by a master rhetorician, will sway moderates today just as it did when Reagan took that approach 35 years ago. Compare those two messages, “big libertarian-ish tent” versus “return to Reagan,” and you see why Cruz’s candidacy is such a thorn in Rand’s side. If Paul’s big argument against Cruz for right-wing votes is that he’s relatively more electable, what happens to that argument once Bush and Walker and Rubio start going to work on Rand for his own perceived unelectability? If you’re a Reagan conservative and you become convinced that you’ve got a 15 percent chance of beating Hillary with Paul versus a 10 percent chance with Cruz, you might as well roll the dice on Cruz, right? Especially if you’re a hawk who’s more comfortable with his approach to foreign policy.

Paul’s counter to all of the above is that he’s not unelectable and that the polls bear it out. Is that true? Sort of yes, sort of no. It’s true that he’s occasionally polled better head-to-head against Hillary than the competition, most recently in CNN’s latest survey. What he’s not telling you is that, even in that poll, he trailed her by double digits. And if you average the results of the last five or so national polls showing head-to-head matchups with Clinton, you’ll find that Paul’s actually slightly behind Rubio and Walker and only very slightly ahead of Jeb Bush. The good news for Rand fans, in other words, is that he’s no worse at this point than the other top contenders, not that he’s much better. Also, if you dig into the crosstabs, you’ll find that his numbers among black voters and young adults — two core Democratic constituencies that he’s been targeting to demonstrate his electability — really are no warmer to him than they are to the rest of the field. In this Marist poll taken a few weeks ago, for instance, both Walker and Bush do better than Paul versus Hillary in both demographics. McClatchy found Paul holding Hillary to an 11-point advantage among the 18-29 group … but Chris Christie held her to a six-point lead. Paul wasn’t much better against Clinton than Christie or Bush among young adults in PPP’s poll either — and among black voters he was absolutely swamped at 88/1. So far, the only poll I’ve seen showing Paul with obvious strength among young voters vis-a-vis the rest of the GOP is this one from Fox News, which was taken two months ago and didn’t include Walker, Rubio, or Cruz. If you’re a Rand fan, you can shrug all of that off on grounds that it’s early and he hasn’t introduced himself to most black voters and young voters, which is true — but the competition’s oppo researchers haven’t gone to work on him yet either.

Electability arguments are fine but ultimately the “Cruz or Paul?” question will be settled by how you react to their very different personal styles and how much you trust Rand as commander-in-chief. If you’re a righty who wants to try something different this time and/or you find that Cruz’s public persona gets under your skin, you’ve got Rand. If you find Cruz’s oratory inspiring and fear that Rand’ll be unpredictable (a.k.a. too libertarian) in office, you’ve got Cruz.

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