Senator Chuck Schumer earned some chuckles among Democrats when he said today that the decision by House Republicans to suspend any limits on the national debt for three months was evidence that “The president stared down the Republicans. They blinked.” The GOP chose to remove, at least for a time, any threat of a government shutdown because they knew they were locked in an unequal struggle with the White House and the Democratic majority in the Senate. By backing down on the debt ceiling deadline, the House leadership decided they’d be better off avoiding a confrontation that would lead to them being blamed for damaging the economy while probably not getting the spending cuts and entitlement reform that they rightly know the country needs. But there is at least one Republican in the Senate who thinks Schumer is right and who hopes to gain from making clear his disagreement.
Senator Rand Paul made it clear earlier this week that he disapproves of Speaker Boehner’s embrace of Fabian tactics. Instead of trying another Alamo-like last stand such as the GOP’s ill-fated fiscal cliff tactics, Boehner is hoping the GOP will be better off retreating now and living to fight another day. But Paul isn’t the only Republican unhappy about the decision. The 33 Republicans who defected during the House vote on the debt legislation made it obvious that a substantial portion of the party is unwilling to accept anything but a policy of all-out war all the time against the president’s refusal to deal with the debt crisis. Boehner has his hands full in a fractious caucus, but the impulse to rebel against a more cautious approach to their political problem is not limited to the House. Paul’s statement makes it clear that he is auditioning for the role of the party’s insurgent leader.
Paul’s desire to run for president in 2016 is not exactly a secret. In addition to assuming a far more strident public role than in his first two years in the Senate, Paul even went to Israel this month in a not terribly persuasive effort to convince the pro-Israel community that he is evolving from an isolationist foreign policy worldview. But by criticizing Boehner in this manner, Paul is setting himself up as being far more than just another frustrated Tea Party critic of the party leadership.
In doing so, he is also picking a fight with the one Republican who is most identified with the cause of entitlement reform: Representative Paul Ryan. Democrats have spent the last two years demonizing Ryan for his visionary proposals challenging the status quo on Medicare. As the intellectual leader of the party, Ryan has been doing much of the heavy lifting for the party articulating the position that unless Washington changes the way it does business, that vital program as well as other government benefits won’t survive the coming fiscal meltdown. By backing Boehner’s compromise measure, Ryan is showing once again that he’s a team player who, though determined to promote reform ideas, isn’t interested in grandstanding or showing up Boehner or Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
Yet if Ryan is, as many of his admirers hope, interested in running for president in 2016, this leaves him vulnerable to future attacks from Paul as a compromiser rather than a true Tea Party believer.
Paul’s increasing visibility makes it look as if he intends to spend the next three years auditioning for the role of leader of a far bigger faction of the party than his extremist libertarian father Ron ever had at his back. But part of that will entail a program of guerrilla warfare against Republicans like Ryan who are just as interested in stopping Obama’s liberal program but aren’t willing to throw his party’s leadership under the bus to do it. Some in the GOP may still dismiss his chances in 2016 but bashing Boehner’s decision, taking a shot at New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and being among the most strident critics of Hillary Clinton at the Senate Benghazi hearing today are the kind of things that will win him fans among the GOP base. Paul’s isolationist foreign policy views and loner mentality still mark him as an outlier in his party, as well as someone who might have trouble winning a general election. But his bid to be the party’s leading insurgent is laying the groundwork for what may be a formidable presidential bid.