Is Rand Paul the future of the GOP?

He’s certainly part of it, and an important part as the Republican Party tries to reach out to libertarian-leaning voters.  His father found ways to excite and energize younger voters, a skill that the last few elections have shown the GOP sorely needs, as well as a message that matches up with their leave-me-alone mindset.  But is Rand Paul ready to lead the party toward a resurgence of limited-government conservatism with his blend of devolved powers and social conservatism?  “That’s classified,” he jokes to ABC’s Jonathan Karl, but doesn’t deny an interest in a presidential run:

“I’m not going to deny that I’m interested,” Sen. Paul tells ABC’s Jonathan Karl about his presidential aspirations. While Paul is quick to add that he isn’t ready to make a decision about a presidential bid yet, he is not hesitant to say that the Republican Party needs a new message.

“I think we have to go a different direction because we’re just not winning and we have to think about some different ideas,” says the senator.

What are the different “directions” Paul suggests?  Decriminalization of marijuana is one place to start, but Paul wants a change of emphasis on immigration as well:

“We’re getting an ever dwindling percent of the Hispanic vote,” Paul says. “We have to let people know, Hispanics in particular, we’re not putting you on a bus and shipping you home.” Paul emphasizes that border security is still his top priority but adds that he wouldn’t “rule out” a conditional path to citizenship for those who have been living in the United States illegally for an extended period of time.

Paul rejects a tax hike entirely, but also says that the GOP has to articulate the actual structural problems in spending better, which a tax increase won’t help:

On the issue of the impending fiscal cliff, Paul says the president’s successful reelection does not give him a mandate to raise taxes, as some within the Republican Party have conceded. Paul says he will not vote to raise taxes and suggests that there are other paths to compromise that don’t include tax increases.

“How about another compromise?” Paul asks. “Republicans who think military spending, myself, who think national defense is important, should compromise and say, you know what, not every dollar spent on the military’s sacred, we can reduce the military spending, that’s a compromise. Democrats should compromise also — entitlements and welfare, the spending can come.”

Jennifer Rubin warns Republicans to keep an open mind about Rand, who is not “a clone of his father,” even though Rand has had a couple moments of “nuttiness” during his brief political career:

My point on these issues is that conservatives should persuade and discuss areas of difference, but it is a mistake to treat Paul as a clone of his father or a man incapable of maturation. And at a time when thoughtful hawks are revisiting issues like aid to Egypt, his views seem, even to those of us who disagree with his general bent, less wacky.

Moreover, he’s talking sense — a lot of sense — on issues of federalism and immigration reform. On gay marriage and abortion, he’s taken a principled stand (one that I’ve frequently suggested on the marriage issue) that these are matters ideally handled by the states. “We have to let people know, Hispanics in particular, we’re not putting you on a bus and shipping you home. I’m still right there with a lot of the hardcore immigration people who want border troop security. I will insist that border security is first. But I’m also not going to rule out that we can’t figure out an eventual way if you’ve been living here for 10 or 20 years that you can’t become like the rest of us.”

Rand Paul, like many in the Republican Party, has decisions to make about his own role and where the party should go. Will he eschew nuttiness ( his campaign comments on the 1964 Civil Rights Act), become a principled but effective leader and help expand the party in ways that are more likely to attract young and nonwhite voters? If so, fellow conservatives should engage him and heed the positive aspects of his message.

Too often, I think, conservatives jump way ahead (But we wouldn’t want him as commander in chief!) rather than consider where the party sits now, namely in desperate need of innovation and thoughtful conversation. If the party is going to be more inclusive with voters, it can start by recognizing areas of agreement with those on the right (especially those who correctly assess the party’s political challenges and who speak in respectful terms) rather than seek to marginalize them. To do otherwise is to ensure decades of Democrats in the White House.

Paul the Younger has always seemed to have a better grasp on reality than Paul the Elder, and so far has managed to shed the disturbing connections to the fringe that his father courted.  I don’t think that Paul will have enough of a following by 2016 to make a serious run for the Presidency, but his talents might be better used in the Senate to build a conservative wing along with Jim DeMint that can stop the excesses of Washington and fight for fiscal sanity.  The presidency will always be critical to that fight, but it can’t be won without having solid players in the legislative branch as well.

Paul is an element of the future of the Republican Party, and if he works wisely, he could be a driving force for a deeper commitment to limited government and large-scale reform.  That would be good news for everyone.