In the 24 hours after Rand Paul officially announced his presidential campaign, the Kentucky doctor has shown off both edges of his trademark combative political style.
On the “Today Show” yesterday morning, Paul went after  NBC reporter Savannah Guthrie when she pressed him on his frequent attempts to split the foreign-policy baby. For a candidate with unconventional politics that will necessarily not fit into the easy categories relied on by 24-hour news, Paul has often displayed thin skin and a paucity of patience that could bode poorly for his ability to weather an 18-month campaign that will only get more confrontational.
Before the day was out, however, Paul performed the abortion-politics reversal so many pro-life conservatives have been anxiously waiting for in the years following the Obama campaign’s “war on women” meme. In doing so, he reminded us that he first truly broke out as a national figure by picking a filibuster fight no other Republican would touch.
As Dave Weigel reports , the Associated Press pressed Paul on the issue of abortion exceptions, and he responded by noting his votes for bills that included exceptions and those that didn’t. When Paul was again questioned by a local reporter citing a DNC e-mail blast that referenced his previous answer, however, he turned it back around, asking,
Here’s the deal—we always seen to have the debate waaaaay over here on what are the exact details of exemptions, or when it starts … Why don’t we ask the DNC: Is it okay to kill a seven-pound baby in the uterus? You go back and you ask Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she’s OK with killing a seven-pound baby that is not born yet. Ask her when life begins, and you ask Debbie when it’s okay to protect life. When you get an answer from Debbie, get back to me.
As the earnest people at Vox have been documenting , the ideological uniformity that distinguishes activists on both sides of the abortion issue is far rarer in the American public at large. Yet for reasons that readers can supply for themselves, pro-life politicians and positions are far more likely to receive widespread critical media coverage, examining their answers on questions about fringe cases. The fringe cases of very late-term abortions, and whether they should be legal or not, are rarely given the same intensity of mainstream media examination.
Wasserman Schultz’s response revealed her lack of practice:
Here’s an answer … I support letting women and their doctors make this decision without government getting involved. Period. End of story. Now your turn, Senator Paul. We know you want to allow government officials like yourself to make this decision for women — but do you stand by your opposition to any exceptions, even when it comes to rape, incest, or life of the mother? Or do we just have different definitions of ‘personal liberty’? And I’d appreciate it if you could respond without ’shushing’ me.
While she may not get raked over the coals the same way an RNC chair would for an equivalent categorical statement, Wasserman Schultz immediately concedes the abortion ballgame, declaring legal abortion apparently up to the moment of delivery to be the official Democratic party position.
What stands out in Rand’s reversal is that he did not go after the media for a perceived unfairness. He went right after the DNC. As much as many conservatives may enjoy sticking it to their perceived media enemy, even in our disintermediated age it doesn’t do a candidate any favors to constantly be showing up the ref .
Launching attacks at Democrats cuts out the middleman, and may be one of Paul’s best rhetorical tactics to win enough of the traditional Republican base to have a chance at the primary nod. Paul’s libertarian streak will always keep him from being the candidate to reassuringly confirm the base’s priors, and his attempts to shroud foreign policy restraint in hawkish rhetoric can at times appear ungainly. Distinguishing himself as the most skilled assailant of Hillary Clinton, then, could give Paul an appealing in with the base.
In a GOP primary field that will likely eventually turn into a circular firing squad, Rand’s ability to rise above the intraparty fray, while still appealing to untraditional constituencies, may be his best political path to success. To pull it off, however, he’ll have to display more skilled reversals, and fewer thin-skinned retorts.