Rand Paul apparently doesn’t like Ted Cruz; the feeling is mutual.
According to The New York Times, Senator Paul’s inner circle of advisers calls Cruz “the chief of the wacko birds,” borrowing a phrase first used by Senator John McCain to describe Republican extremists. Senator Cruz derides Paul’s presidential chances, saying the Kentuckian is too wedded to the libertarianism of his father, former Representative Ron Paul of Texas.
The personal animosity between Paul and Cruz reflects two of the many divergent strands within the Republican Party: Cruz’s tea party credentials vs. Paul’s reputed libertarianism. The conflict demonstrates just how uneasy is the alliance of tea partiers and libertarians within the GOP. (Of course, there are other wings to the Republican Party, just as there are other candidates for 2016; the focus here is on the tea party and libertarians, especially the latter.)
It is erroneous to classify the tea party as libertarian, though the mistake is often made. Paul confuses the issue by asserting he is a libertarian while claiming to represent the tea party. Libertarians often embody an amalgam of left and right: They oppose Obamacare, for example, and favor limiting the role of government (often far more than traditional Republicans do). But unlike tea partiers, and most white evangelicals, libertarians oppose interfering with a woman’s right to choose, favor legalizing marijuana and physician-assisted suicide, and generally support gay marriage. A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that only 39 percent of libertarians identify with the tea party, while 61 percent do not.
This divergence between libertarianism and the tea party presents a problem for Rand Paul as he contemplates a presidential run. The Public Religion Research Institute survey shows that only seven percent of Americans are consistently libertarian on public policy issues, with an additional 15 percent leaning libertarian. That’s a small slice of the electorate on which to base a presidential run. And it’s a problem in the early, influential primaries, which are weighted in favor of social conservatism. The Republican voters who trudge to the caucuses in the depths of the Iowa winter tend toward social conservatism, and they see Cruz as their early favorite.
Paul has made the requisite visits to Iowa, where he enjoyed popularity earlier this year after his filibuster over the use of drone strikes. He has been eclipsed more recently by Cruz because of the Texas senator’s leading role in the government shutdown. And down the road, Paul will find that to compete in Iowa and other early GOP primaries and caucuses (such as in South Carolina), he will have to appeal to social conservatives and tea partiers by muting his libertarianism. That may not be too difficult, since his credentials as a libertarian have always been suspect.
On abortion, for example, Paul favors a constitutional amendment to ban the procedure, contrary to true libertarians, who see issues such as abortion as a matter of personal choice. Paul describes himself as pro-life and believes life begins at conception. Similarly, most libertarians oppose government regulation of marriage, whether same-sex or not, while Paul, to be fair, has been muddled on the issue.
After the Supreme Court rulings on gay marriage last June, Paul suggested the way was open for marriage between a human and a non-human. He later said it was a joke, but given, the venue, an interview with Glenn Beck, it’s hard not to conclude that he was making an appeal to an important segment of the Republican electorate. Earlier, the Kentuckian suggested he opposed the Defense of Marriage Act because it might accidentally lead to legalizing same-sex marriage. “I believe in traditional marriage,” Paul said in early January. At other times, he has said the issue should be left to the states.
Paul’s confused and confusing positions on gay marriage, along with his anti-choice stance, belie a consistent libertarianism. But they also reflect the political tightrope he is trying to walk, appealing to true libertarians while reaching out to tea partiers and social conservatives, all of whom are housed within the Republican Party.
That’s a difficult juggling act.