WASHINGTON (AP) – Change? For sure. Hope? Maybe not so much.
That’s Rand Paul’s approach to winning the White House when the original hope-and-change candidate, Barack Obama, vacates it in early 2017.
Ready to enter the chase for the Republican presidential nomination this week, the first-term Kentucky senator has designs on changing how members of his party go about getting elected to the White House and how they govern once they get there.
He will do so with an approach to politics that is often downbeat and usually dour, which just might work in a nation deeply frustrated with Washington.
Since his election to Congress, and in the lead-up to his entry into the presidential race, Paul has favored blunt takes on America’s woes instead of the sunny earnestness that helped fuel Obama’s rise to popularity in 2007 and 2008.
Consider Paul’s response this year to Obama’s State of the Union address, a speech filled by presidents of all parties with bullish predictions for the nation’s future. Paul’s message that night was downright sullen.
“I wish I had better news for you, but all is not well in America,” Paul said. Much of the country, he said, “still suffers.”
Paul is set to declare his candidacy during a speech in his home state of Kentucky on Tuesday. Expect Paul to outline a vision for America that doesn’t fit any of the traditional Republican molds.
He would alter the scale and mandate of the federal government in more radical ways than other members of the GOP. And he bucks party ideology in standing against government surveillance, for deep cuts in military spending and in questioning the wisdom of harsh sentences for drug offenders who cost government billions to imprison.
Those libertarian impulses resonate with people on the left as well as the right, though they can be hard for many mainstream Republicans to swallow. Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who was his party’s 2008 presidential nominee, called Paul and others “wacko birds” of the Senate when they unsuccessfully tried to block the nomination of John Brennan as CIA chief in a dispute over the use of drones.
“He can appeal to a broader spectrum of voters,” said Eliott West, a student at Michigan’s Spring Arbor University who led a pro-Paul delegation to a recent conservative conference near Washington. “He is about more freedom, less government. And if Republicans are going to win, that’s what we need.”
Paul also plans to seek out support from those who might not necessarily think a Republican deserves their vote. Among 2016 GOP rivals, Paul alone has made a point of visiting college campuses, historically black universities and minority communities. For instance, after the protests over police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, Paul visited the city and urged black residents to vote.
Immediately after his Kentucky speech on Tuesday, Paul will visit counties in the first four early nominating states that favored Obama over GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. In three of Rand Paul’s destinations, his father, Rep. Ron Paul, came in second in his longshot 2012 bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
He’ll do so with a campaign style that is utterly unique. Where Ronald Reagan promised that “It’s morning in America again” and George H.W. Bush pitched “a thousand points of light,” Paul skips the feel-good slogans. He tells audiences, for example, that he wants to stop the government from snooping on people’s data. “We’re going to be the party that protects your phone.”
Paul’s advisers acknowledge that his approach could be off-putting to voters who expect optimism in their presidents. They bank on the expectation that frustration with the status quo will again mean a vote for change – this time, for a Republican after eight years of a Democrat in the White House.
That message worked in reverse for Obama in 2007 and 2008. Obama, another first-term senator, told voters he would turn the page after eight years of President George W. Bush, a deeply unpopular figure, even within his own party.
But Obama’s message was relentlessly optimistic. His campaign rallies were festooned with posters of “Hope and Change” and his massive crowds chanted “Yes, we can.”
“Stand with Rand” has become the rallying cry of Paul’s crowds, but he doesn’t want anything to do with a happy chant. When they start, Paul tends to put his hands to his side and let the fervor die down. He then returns to his pitch that the United States is in trouble and needs dramatic change.
“Our future hangs in the balance,” Paul told conservatives who packed a ballroom near Washington earlier this year.
“We can debate a jobless recovery, an alarming debt, a bothersome and abusive regulatory state,” he said. “But know this: You can’t have prosperity without freedom.”