Desperately searching for an establishment Republican who can block Donald Trump, many observers are ignoring the strong and politically astute performance of Rand Paul in Wednesday night's Republican debate. A classic example this morning is Michael Gerson, the big-government Republican who has written for George W. Bush and the Washington Post and is the most anti-libertarian pundit this side of Salon. Recognizing the need for the Republican party to reach new audiences, especially "with minorities, with women, with younger voters, with working-class voters in key states," Gerson writes:
The relatively rare moments of economic analysis and political outreach in the second Republican debate — Chris Christie talking about income stagnation, or Marco Rubio lamenting the “millions of people in this country living paycheck to paycheck,” or Ben Carson admitting the minimum wage might require increasing and fixing, or Jeb Bush setting out the necessary goal of accelerated economic growth, or John Kasich calling for a “sense of hope, sense of purpose, a sense of unity” — served only to highlight the opportunity cost of the Trump summer.
What's missing? Well, Rand Paul talked about marijuana reform, an issue that is far more popular than the Republican Party, especially among younger voters. And criminal justice and incarceration, an issue of special concern to minorities. And especially about our endless wars in the Middle East, at a time when 63 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of independents say that the Iraq war was not worth the costs, and when 52 percent of Americans say the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” (Not the best formulation, as noninterventionists are not opposed to international activity, just to imprudent military action. But you go to print with the polls you have, not the polls you wish you had.) Those are attempts to reach new audiences that a fair-minded debate watcher would have noticed.
Fortunately, not everyone was deaf to Paul's arguments. Even at the Washington Post people noticed:
Eugene Robinson: Rand Paul seems to have become a libertarian again, sticking up for individual rights. And unlike the others on the stage, he spoke out for peace rather than war.
Charles Lane: For my money, Paul has delivered the two pithiest critiques of Trump of anyone so far in the debates.
In Cleveland, he pointed at Trump, who actually boasts about his promiscuous political donations, and declared, with complete accuracy, “I mean, this is what’s wrong. He buys and sells politicians of all stripes.”
Last night, Paul was also spot-on regarding Trump’s over-the-top rudeness: “Do we want someone with that kind of character? With that kind of careless language? I think there’s a sophomoric quality about Mr. Trump… about his visceral response to attack people on their appearance, short, tall, fat, ugly.” He added: “Do we really want someone in charge of our nuclear arsenal who goes around basically using the insults of a junior high or a sophomore in high school?” Lately, Paul’s stump speeches hammer on these themes, too.
And in the conservative media:
Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner: Rand Paul just gave the smartest comments on foreign policy from a GOP debate stage in decades.
Guy Benson of Fox News and Townhall: Rand Paul making case that Iraq war didn’t make us safer… which most Americans agree with.
And in the heartland of America, John Kass at the Chicago Tribune:
Rand Paul won the Republican presidential debate.
It wasn't even close....
Paul, the senator from Kentucky, spoke like a thoughtful grown-up, overshadowing them all on foreign policy, explaining that intervening in Middle East civil wars is a recipe for disaster....
"Sometimes both sides of the civil war are evil, and sometimes intervention sometimes makes us less safe," Paul said. "This is the real debate we have to have in the Middle East....
There is no buzz to such rhetoric, no bloody gusto, no King Leonidas abs of steel, no Joan of Arc with a sword.
It's just grown-up talk, and so, quite likely, not entertaining at all.
Right now 50 percent of Republicans tell pollsters they support two candidates who have never before sought or held public office, and who are highly unlikely to succeed in this race. That means the race is still wide open. As Rand Paul said Wednesday night, "If you want boots on the ground, and you want them to be our sons and daughters, you got 14 other choices." Millions of Republicans believe in free enterprise, smaller government, less punitive drug laws, and a more cautious approach to military intervention. If Paul can convince them that he's the only candidate who shares their perspective, he has every opportunity to move up sharply in the polls. But there's powerful Establishment resistance to new ideas and new policies.