Rand Paul really struck a chord with many conservatives when he declared at CPAC that “the GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered,——I don’t think we need to name any names here, do we?” But will he adhere to his own admonishment?
The imagery of stale air and moss-covered vegetation serves as the superlative metaphor for the way so many of us view the current crop of GOP leaders. Many of them are not necessarily liberal Republicans-in-name-only at heart; they just fail to inspire a following and fail to articulate conservative principles in a way that provides voters with a bold and exciting contrast. They are content to grow old in office, cutting backroom deals with Democrats to grow government, so long as their seat of power is protected.
At its core, the lack of fresh leaders and ideas is born out of the lack of choice and competition in primaries. The bedrock belief of conservatism is that choice and competition lead to better outcomes in the marketplace. The GOP – the party that is supposed to promote that belief – has been run like a country club for years. Our presidential nominees have always been the “next in line;” our congressional nominees have always been the ones with the most money and name recognition. Once elected to office, nobody has dared to challenge 95% of these individuals. Such a lack of rivalry would leave even the boldest conservative a bit complacent and moss-covered after several decades of free rides with Republican voters. Someone who was never a bold conservative to begin with is certainly rendered irredeemable after decades with no competition.
Hence, if we want to clean out the mildew within the GOP tent, we must open the door with some fresh air of healthy primary competition.
If you want a dictionary definition of the GOP establishment, it is Mitch McConnell and those who surround him. If you want to know the paradigm of stale, moss-covered leadership, it’s Mitch McConnell. Nobody could assert with a straight face – even those who personally admire him – that Mitch McConnell is an inspiring leader who has provided bold leadership against the big government establishment in Washington. He has voted for all of the things Rand Paul has inveighed against for years. He has cut backroom deals with Biden to raise taxes and the debt ceiling. He has been running around ridiculing Obamacare while doing nothing do defund it through the budget process until Ted Cruz forced his hand – and even then, he voted for the CR which ultimately contained that funding.
Now he is running around town as a born-again bare-knuckled fighter for conservatives. He is schlepping around that tower of Obamacare regulations and letting every media outlet know that he hates Obamacare and taxes (after cutting the deal with Biden). Why the sudden breath of fresh air and fighting spirit? Well, he perceives a threat on his right flank back home from the same Tea Party forces that helped elect Rand Paul to the Senate and Thomas Massie to the House. If nothing else, it proves the effectiveness of competition within the party, even the mere threat or perception that such competition exists.
Yet, Rand Paul has preemptively endorsed Mitch McConnell before any specific primary challenge has presented itself. McConnell has tapped Rand Paul’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton, to run his reelection bid, and is running around saying that the two senators are “inseparable.” Look, I’ll also endorse Mitch McConnell against the eventual Democrat, but why preempt any competition? How are we ever going to get rid of the moss if we are going to block out competition to the leader of the moss-covered Republicans?
We all get where Rand Paul is coming from. Nobody ever expects the sitting junior senator to ever come out against the senior senator from the same state who happens to also be the minority leader. We get that he wants to run for president and needs access to McConnell’s establishment donors. But he would be well advised not to follow in the footsteps of Rick Santorum and stomp around the state with someone who campaigned against him the primary. He’d be well served not to hitch his wagon too closely to someone who is not exactly that popular in the state. Does he really want to be “inseparable” with McConnell’s 26-year-old moss, covered record?
You can’t change the status quo with the consummate iteration of the status quo. Voters of Kentucky realize that as well. That is why they elected Rand Paul over McConnell’s choice, whom McConnell considered more electable. Speaking of electability, the irony is that at a time when we need to win back the Senate, McConnell might be the only man who could lose this seat for us in the general election. He spent $21 million to barely eke out a victory against a Democrat in 2008 in a state Obama lost by 23 points.
Now Democrats are trying to run a young female secretary of state, Alison Lundergan Grimes, who will be able to play the blue dog game and run away from Obama. She could effectively paint herself as the much-needed change against the status quo, which based upon the 2008 election, is not exactly popular with base voters in Kentucky. A $21 million bare-knuckled ad campaign against someone like Grimes will not work as well as it did against a male opponent. It would be nice to have a Republican who can positively run on his record and not risk losing a state in which Obama lost 117 of 120 counties.
Competition is healthy in the primary and it is healthy for the general election. Let’s wait until the field matures and back the best candidate in the primary and general elections. No senator is too big to fail. No senator owns a seat for life. Every six years he must make the case why his previous six years constitute the type of representation that earns him another term. In the primary, he must vouch for why he is the best candidate to represent conservative voters. Conservatives in Kentucky are looking for another leader like Rand Paul. Are they getting such leadership from McConnell?
Why is it that McConnell always leads from behind? Why is it the usual three amigos – Paul, Lee, and Cruz – are threatening to filibuster the gun bill, and not the minority leader? Maybe he will support them in last moment like he did with Rand’s filibuster or with the defund Obamacare effort from Ted Cruz. But why should we not look for another star from Kentucky, and perhaps, a new minority leader.
Without some healthy competition we will never have that discussion. Stale air doesn’t dissipate on its own.
Cross-posted at The Madison Project