Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) doesn’t want you to see him as a hopeful for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Nor is he really all that interested in being a “hero” for demanding an apology from deranged attention-seeker and has-been Ted Nugent.
Paul wants you to see him as your next president.
Which means his seemingly abrupt tweet calling for a white flag from Nugent wasn’t really all that abrupt. It was pure calculation and the continued evolution of Paul’s attempt to rebrand the family name and realign the Republican Party. Nugent’s recent description of President Obama as a “subhuman mongrel” may have run orgasmic shivers up the spines of squirrely, white supremacists circle jerking on weekend hunting trips. But, Paul correctly wagered that it would be about as far as Nugent could go with it.
Just two weeks ago, Ted assumed he was riding high, sitting only a row of Congressional knuckleheads away from President Obama during the State of the Union. But, yesterday Nugent found himself publicly pimp-slapped into submission by Paul and forced to apologize. Stunned, sandblasted and shamed by an unprecedented public lashing from a respected Republican politician, Nugent had little choice but to scurry back into a cave. Paul successfully and quite skillfully navigated a minefield of racially-charged conservative animus unscathed, with Nugent among his first victims on an ambitious mission to civilize the GOP.
While fun to watch, giving Nugent the back of the hand doesn’t necessarily make Paul a hero. Nugent was simply a beautifully-timed gift from the political gods the junior Kentucky Senator could not refuse. Paul is still in the Top 5 of hypothetical GOP nomination candidates in a crowded field of nearly a dozen hopefuls; the latest RealClearPolitics average finds him in 5th place with 11.2 percent. With his arch nemesis Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) tied up in scandal, Paul was looking for just the right controversy to inch his way up the Republican nomination ladder.
Paul’s move also chipped away at the myth of an invincible and uncontrollable tea party rage element within the Republican Party that can’t be defied. Instead, Paul instantly neutralized one of the more radical anti-establishment “nativist” elements by simply calling their bluff when other Republican politicians have punked out.
Plus, the Kentucky senator – like Christie – may believe that the tea party won’t be that much of a factor in the 2016 primary since it might break itself off into a separate operation. While candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) are interested in being a tea party nominee (thereby presenting an opportunity to bypass the GOP party elite), Paul isn’t interested. Instead, he’s thinking new century Ronald Reaganite able to form a wobbly winning coalition of ideologically clashing voters who can’t stand one another, but can agree on being angry and disenchanted enough with Washington to vote for someone like him.
A wily Paul figures the decentralized Nugent nut wing of the Republican Party won’t be that much of a threat once he’s pulled together a coalition of libertarians, independents and center-right conservatives. It’s not like Nugent was all that influential in the first place, so one has to scratch their dome in confusion at the spectacle of deferential Republican politicians who were always quick to give Ted a pass for, well … being Ted. The YouGov Opigram shows Nugent’s negative ratings nearly double that of his positives, with his Positivity Index way under 50 percent. And with his Fan Profile skewing very white, old, male and Republican, Paul decided that Nugent wouldn’t be of much use in a couple of years.
In Paul, we’re also finding quiet moves towards re-building the Republican “Big Tent” showcase they keep talking about but never quite accomplishing. The electorate is clearly much more diverse than graying white dudes who wear camouflage trucker hats. Paul figures he gains some brownie points with various voters by dropping a bomb on Nugent, perhaps looking as brave doing that as he did giving a speech in front of skeptical Black folks at Howard University last year. Not like he’ll get a bunch of women, African Americans or Latinos voting for him – but, maybe he gets a few to offset the GOP’s complexion problem.
Openly dismissing Nugent also helps Paul further distance his brand from that of his cranky dad Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), the kooky Republican presidential candidate with a questionable racialized past of his own. It just shows that Paul understands not all voters are Republican primary participants, and that he’s assuming he’ll be in a good position to win the nomination. It’s quite a presumptuous gamble, but Paul is getting himself ready for the general election spotlight by re-fashioning his image as bold, practical and sensitive. Still, crazy remains baked into the Paul DNA, so it remains a mystery as to whether he can shake that.
CHARLES D. ELLISON is a veteran political strategist and Chief Political Correspondent for UPTOWN Magazine. He’s also Washington Correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and a frequent contributor to TheRoot.com. He can be reached via Twitter @charlesdellison.