Rand Paul and John McCain: Senate outsiders separated by more than age

Posted at 11:15 AM, Apr 08, 2015
and last updated 2015-04-08 12:02:52-04

Thirty years isn't enough to satisfy John McCain. The Arizona Republican announced Tuesday that he's running next year for a sixth term in the U.S. Senate.

Coming on the same day GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky made his presidential bid official, McCain's news necessarily attracted less attention. McCain, the party's nominee back in 2008, will turn 80 by Election Day next year. He'll never again occupy the political world's full and undivided attention.

But the twin announcements highlight how the role of political outliers has changed over the past couple of decades.

McCain earned his vaunted "maverick" status by breaking with his party on substantive matters. He worked with liberal Democrat Russell Feingold on campaign finance restrictions, found common cause with Ted Kennedy on immigration and voted against the tax cuts championed by President George W. Bush (who beat him in the 2000 GOP primaries).

All this earned him the sobriquet of "McRino," a reference to the acronym for "Republican in name only."

"A maverick can be ideologically outside the mainstream, or he can be temperamentally outside," says John Karaagac, a political scientist at Indiana University. "McCain combined both of these traits."

In the years following his defeat at the hands of Barack Obama, McCain came to seem like one of his party's forgotten men, even as he derided Paul and other combative newcomers to the Senate as "wacko birds."

Paul, by contrast, seemed in the ascendant. He commanded the Senate floor (and social media) with a 13-hour filibuster against President Obama's nominee to head the CIA. His main complaint was the administration's use of unmanned drones in combating terror.

That stance won Paul support in some surprising quarters -- but did not lead to any permanent alliances with Democrats. Paul's position, after all, was heartfelt but ultimately rhetorical.

Unlike McCain, he hasn't dealt with Democrats for any sustained period of time. Instead, Paul has occupied a sort of demilitarized zone of his own between the two parties.

"McCain has had the capacity to made deals with Democrats, to compromise on legislation," says Geoffrey Kabaservice, author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party. "Paul's libertarianism is like a stopped clock -- everyone can agree with it a couple times a day."

Paul has softened his stance against military interventions. Although he underscored in his announcement speech that peace is preferable to war, he said that "the enemy is radical Islam," suggesting he won't shy from a fight, if necessary.

But Paul is likely to remain more of an ideological outsider than the generally conservative McCain ever was.

The very thing that made McCain into a bad boy -- cutting deals on a bipartisan basis -- now seems like the quintessential establishment move. It's something few politicians of Paul's generation have any interest in pursuing.

Paul's contrarianism draws from a deep well. He carries on a libertarian-leaning tradition that predates not only his father but his entire party, hearkening back to the days of those founders who were skeptical about foreign entanglements and government encroachments on personal liberty.

Paul intends to test the size of the latent libertarian wing within the Republican Party, although it seems unlikely to be anywhere near large enough to get him the nomination.

It now appears that McCain will have more influence, making the case for robust military responses from his perch as chair of the Armed Services Committee. "He really sees events breaking his way," Karaagac says.

As Paul pursues White House glory during his first Senate term, it seems inconceivable he would ever want to stick around for five more, in hopes of having that same kind of latter-day impact on policy.

[Also by Alan Greenblatt: Why don't politicians know when to get off the stage?]

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