GOP presidential hopeful Rand Paul’s slip was showing during his long, rambling and repetitive announcement Tuesday of his intent to run for president.
The Kentucky senator’s campaign launch wasn’t the worst rollout we’ve seen in recent years (that award still belongs to the Obamacare website), but the mixture of misused thematic elements, poor organization and a low-quality presentation makes his a close second. Cue the Benny Hill music.
The audience could never get quite organized enough to chant “Stand with Rand” or the wordy “Defeat the Washington machine, unleash the American dream,” falling back on a momentum-lacking “President Paul.” And despite the hook of Paul being an ophthalmologist—a doctor who literally gives people the ability to see—no one was able to creatively connect that to Paul’s vision for America. With forced “I’m your cool uncle” references to Snapchat and Twitter, along with production values straight from Microsoft PowerPoint 1997, it became abundantly clear that Paul doesn’t really understand what he’s running for.
There are two types of candidates in every presidential election cycle: the viable candidates and the electable candidates. A viable candidate is someone who can actually win his or her party’s nomination. An electable candidate is somebody who, if everything fell into place and lightning struck twice, could actually beat Hillary Clinton in a general election. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush fit both categories, while presidential wannabe Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is only viable with the GOP base.
Paul, on the other hand, isn’t viable like Cruz but is much more electable. Paul has a better chance of winning against Clinton than he does against the GOP-primary field, but his campaign execution is so sloppy and unwieldy that he may not even make it that far unless he rights his ship, and fast.
Paul’s move to the general-election middle has included massive overtures to African-American voters. He became legislative BFFs with Democrat Cory Booker, joining the New Jersey senator on issues like prison reform and mass incarceration. He has spoken to multiple HBCUs and didn’t flee the room screaming even when the crowd disagreed with him. He’s spoken out, loudly, about police violence and militarization in the wake of the Ferguson, Mo., protests. Paul is so proud of his new campaign blackness that he’s bragging that he could swing about 30 percent of the African-American vote in the general election.
This lean toward inclusion, while laudable, runs against the base of the Republican-primary electorate, which is made up of voters who generally hate President Barack Obama (with racial overtones), are strong supporters of voter-ID policies (which African Americans hate), and stand on opposing sides from black voters on school choice, health care and a slew of other issues. More important, the primary states that weed out which candidates are contenders and which are future radio-show hosts have negligible African-American populations. Blacks make up 3 percent of the population in Iowa and 1.5 percent of the population in New Hampshire; and while they’re 27.9 percent of the population in South Carolina, pretty much none of them are voting in a Republican primary.
All of Paul’s moves seem geared toward winning over independents and black voters in a general election—which would be fine if he had launched his campaign like a man who actually expected to make it that far.
When Paul took the stage, he seemed to vacillate between portraying himself as the outsider who will fix Washington and the libertarian centrist who could open up the big Republican tent. You don’t have to be a political savant to know that he can’t be both.
You can’t hide your anti-government libertarian ideals by talking about a strong military and then make dated references to the Tea Party, many of whose members support the government telling citizens who they can and cannot marry. Paul also brought up the need for Jack Kemp-type “enterprise zones” for the inner city, but just last week he was dancing around an Indiana law that was so anti-business that even Wal-Mart got involved. He trotted out his new black friends J.C. Watts and local Kentucky pastor Jerry Stephenson, but neither of them spoke to the kinds of issues that Paul has been tossing at the black community for the last two years.
It wasn’t a good look.
Rand Paul has all of the raw materials to make it to Super Tuesday, but only if he goes on a serious course correction after his campaign launch. He needs to decide whether he’s a fringe candidate running to pull the party toward libertarian issues or a legitimate contender who can out-speak, out-fund-raise and outhustle a field of candidates who have a head start on him financially and in terms of name recognition. He may have the look, the talent and the ideas to win, but if he doesn’t go hard in the paint for this nomination, by next spring he’ll be in the stands while somebody else goes head-to-head with Clinton on the court.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.