Richard Cohen: GOP's next generation lacks experience
Not to put too fine a point on it, but what has Rand Paul ever done? Oh, sure, he’s a member of the U.S. Senate, but only a freshman, and it’s the only political office he has ever held. He’s an ophthalmologist, a father, a husband and the son of Ron Paul, who used to run for president. So now it is son Rand who is doing so. Aside from family tradition, the question is why?
Last month, Paul won the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll with 31 percent of the vote. Second in the hearts of conservatives that day was Sen. Ted Cruz, yet another right-wing darling whose record is unblemished by significant achievement. He, too, is a Senate freshman and by virtue of inexperience feels he knows so much more than his colleagues.
At the moment, Paul has the momentum. He just appeared at the Freedom Summit in Manchester, N.H., where, according to unimpeachable sources (The Washington Post), he generated the most excitement. Cruz also attended the event, as did Mike Huckabee (back from the politically dead), Donald Trump, running or not running for the umpteenth time, and Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who may or may not be seeking the White House.
Either way, the result will be the same. All this might seem something of a joke. Blackburn is probably not a household name on her own block. Huckabee has failed before and will undoubtedly fail again. Trump would probably prefer to run for president than actually be one. But it is Paul who commands attention. A fair number of Republicans are drawn to his putative candidacy on the basis, it seems, on what he opposes — big government, the Federal Reserve, foreign aid, federal education programs and, of course, abortion — than anything he has ever done.
If you compare Paul to Republican presidential nominees of yesteryear you can get an idea of just how far the GOP has sunk. Mitt Romney was the governor of Massachusetts and a very successful businessman. John McCain was a long-serving senator and war hero. George W. Bush was twice elected governor of Texas, Bob Dole had been Senate majority leader, George H.W. Bush had been just about everything and Ronald Reagan was governor of California for two terms.
Obviously, experience does not in itself predict a successful presidency — one can hardly do worse than the younger Bush — but inexperience all but guarantees trouble. Barack Obama’s missteps in both foreign and domestic policy — the Obamacare rollout debacle and the Syrian fiasco — were undoubtedly a consequence of inexperience. Especially in foreign policy, where decisions can be made instantaneously and without advance congressional approval, experience matters greatly.
My doubts about Paul, while based somewhat on his bizarre positions, are really grounded in a fear of the amateur. I expressed similar reservations about Elizabeth Warren, who seemingly moments after being elected a senator from Massachusetts was being mentioned by fellow left-wing Democrats as a presidential candidate. Warren had the good sense to take herself out of contention.
The plight of the Republican Party is now — so to speak — playing on Broadway. I am speaking of the late Lorraine Hansberry’s still-powerful “A Raisin in the Sun,” this time around with Denzel Washington heading up a remarkable cast. What you need to know is that Hansberry was raised in a Republican household. That was once hardly remarkable — many African-Americans owed allegiance to the party of Abraham Lincoln. Franklin D. Roosevelt wooed them and over time Republicans abandoned them. The GOP became hostile to civil rights.
Hansberry, who drifted toward radicalism, was also active in the lesbian movement. The Republican Party has done for homosexual rights what it did to civil rights. It has become the voice of recalcitrance, smoothly transitioning from opposing one form of civil rights to another. I will spare you the cliche about being on the wrong side of history, but you get the idea. Throw in anti-immigrant sentiment, opposition to increasing the minimum wage, seeming resistance to all things feminist — and you have a political party with very little to say to moderates. The GOP always sounds like a crank.
Little wonder then that its presidential candidates range from the callow to the comedic. (I exempt Paul Ryan and Jeb Bush from this group.) Rand Paul is in the former category — a gaggle of ideas untethered to practicality or practical experience. He remains a voice in the wilderness. He should stay there.
Richard Cohen is a nationally syndicated columnist.