Hillary Clinton has started her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. You didn’t notice? That’s no coincidence. It has been the softest of soft launches. To counteract Hillary’s image of being arrogant and entitled to power, her campaign is deliberately trying to keep a low profile and portray her as a humble woman of the people.
So they have her traveling cross-country to Iowa in a vehicle they call by the calculatedly endearing name of the “Scooby van” (which sounds clever and original until you remember she already used this ploy in her 2000 Senate campaign). Or saying “mmm-hmmm” a lot to show just how hard she’s listening to the voters. Or flying coach and (gasp!) carrying her own luggage. Why, she’s just like us—when she’s not taking a private chartered jet with a giant entourage, as is her usual custom.
None of which is particularly convincing. That’s the problem with being a Clinton: everybody knows everything is stage-managed and that it’s all a calculated illusion. So we see the image she’s trying to project, but everybody pretty much knows what the real truth is.
What will actually stick in all of our minds is the portrayal of the Clintons on “Saturday Night Live,” which ends with Hillary dropping the pretense and proclaiming, “Buckle up, America, because the Clintons are back!” Or The Onion‘s typically profane and dead-on channeling of Hillary’s mindset.
Hillary Clinton is stuck. No matter what she says, these depictions are what we’re all going to hear. Her basic challenge is that we already know just a little too well who she is.
Which turns out, somewhat unexpectedly, to be a problem she shares with Rand Paul.
With Paul, the problem is not an unconvincing attempt to act like a regular person, because that’s one of the most conspicuous things about Paul: how much he seems like an ordinary guy. This is especially notable given his father’s reputation for being way out on the odd political fringe. It’s not that Ron Paul’s views are too “extreme” but that he often expresses them in a way that fails to connect to ordinary American common sense. Mollie Hemingway once quipped that Rand Paul is what you’d get if Ron Paul and a normal person had a baby—and it seems that’s exactly what happened.
What has been notable about Rand Paul’s launch is the extent to which he has departed from his father’s message on one issue in particular. He has slowly and very deliberately eschewed his father’s reflexive, blame-America-first anti-interventionism. In some recent statements, he has sounded positively hawkish, with lines like this: “We need a national defense robust enough to defend against all attack, modern enough to deter all enemies, and nimble enough to defend our vital interests.” Though that is followed by: “But we also need a foreign policy that protects American interests and encourages stability—not chaos.” If you can figure out exactly what that means, your powers of deduction exceed mine.
This kind of positioning is a very smart thing to do from a purely political standpoint. Republicans are not particularly eager for new overseas interventions, but on the other hand, the exhaustion with foreign policy in the final years of George W. Bush’s administration has begun to recede. Most people on the right sense that President Obama’s foreign policy has been a disaster and that the next president will have to re-assert American strength. As I have put it, we’re going to need a commander-in-chief.
If Paul stuck to father’s approach, he would become the easy punching bag in the Republican debates, the guy everybody else attacks in order to establish their own toughness on foreign policy—sort of the way Rick Santorum’s niche in 2012 was berating the elder Dr. Paul. So there is a clear political advantage for Rand Paul in taking a more hawkish line.
But when it comes time to actually act on his more hawkish statements, when vigorous presidential leadership is necessary, will Rand Paul be able to follow through? Or will he have his father’s voice in the back of his head, warning about blowback and about how it’s all our fault for interfering in other countries’ affairs in the first place?
So Rand Paul faces the same problem as Hillary Clinton: he says one thing, but all we hear is his dad. We suspect he’s just Ron Paul 2.0, as Representative Thomas Massie put it: “Same algorithms, better user interface.”
No, I don’t think Rand Paul is as cynical in his political positioning as Hillary Clinton, because no one is. And there are a lot of things to like about Rand Paul on domestic policy, particularly his confidence that free markets and small government are a universal message that can potentially appeal to everyone: “The message of liberty, opportunity and justice is for all Americans, whether you wear a suit, a uniform or overalls, whether you’re white or black, rich or poor.”
But nothing compares to the stress of actually making decisions as president. That’s particularly true in foreign policy, where so much authority rests solely on the president’s shoulders, when the stakes are so high, and decisions are often made under the immediate pressure of a crisis. Under those circumstances, the decision a president makes can’t just be a campaign position. It has to be part of his personal convictions, his worldview, his sense of life.
That is the one big question hanging over these two very different candidates. Hillary Clinton may want to seem like a humble woman of the people, but at the end of the day, she’s still…well, a Clinton. Rand Paul may put on a more hawkish image, but when push comes to shove, we are entitled to suspect that he’s still…well, a Paul.