The Divided House of Paul
Will Rand Paul run in 2016? It might depend on which family member has his ear.
By JASON ZENGERLE
December 11, 2013
This week, a civil war broke out inside Rand Paul’s family. The source of the conflict was the Kentucky senator’s presidential prospects. On Monday, Paul’s father Ron went on CNN and, when asked if he expected his son to run for the White House in 2016, replied, “I think he probably will.” But a few days before that, when Rand himself was asked that same question during an appearance at the Detroit Economic Club, he said he probably wouldn’t run—because of his wife Kelley Ashby. “There’s two votes in my family,” Rand said. “My wife has both of them and both of them are ‘no’ votes right now.” If you thought Hillary ‘08 was riven by internal tensions, just wait until Rand ’16. A Paul family divided against itself cannot stand!
Or can it?
In reality, there’s nothing yet to suggest the public back-and-forth really amounts to a full-fledged Paul family civil war. Rather, it reveals a politician who’s publicly laying the groundwork for a presidential bid (“I mean, he’s been on TV hinting that he very well might,” as Ron put it on CNN) while, at the same time, weighing the private toll such a bid would exact. And yet the apparent disagreement between Rand Paul’s father and his wife over whether he should seek the White House does point to a unique family dynamic that is essential to understanding Paul’s political career.
For starters, it’s inconceivable that Rand Paul would be in the U.S. Senate—much less eyeing the White House—were it not for his father. He certainly would not have stood a chance in his 2010 Senate campaign when, as a new-to-politics ophthalmologist, he took on Mitch McConnell and the Kentucky GOP establishment, which was backing another primary candidate, Trey Grayson. The Paul name—and, perhaps more to the point, the grassroots fundraising network built up by Ron in his 2008 presidential campaign—provided “the rocket fuel” for Rand’s bid, says Rand’s former campaign manager David Adams. Without those, Adams adds, “Rand’s still checking eyeballs.”
Still, Rand is not merely continuing his father’s unfinished business; in his short career in electoral politics he’s made clear he’s a far more ambitious politician than Ron—and therefore a very different one. Not content to be merely a gadfly—as Ron was in the House and in his three presidential campaigns—Rand has tried to sand off some of the rougher edges of the Paul family’s libertarian ideology, especially when it comes to foreign policy. Where Ron was the only Republican to vote against a 2009 House resolution supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, for example, Rand took a much ballyhooed trip to the Jewish state earlier this year and has described his “kinship” with Israelis.
Rand has also sought to make alliances with the sort of establishment Republicans his father not only avoided but typically denounced—none more so than with McConnell, the Senate minority leader, who has provided Rand with entrée to the fundraising circles he’ll need to tap for a presidential bid. In June, when Rand traveled to Park City, Utah, for a political confab organized by Mitt Romney, McConnell’s name frequently came up in his conversations with Romney’s major donors, according to an adviser close to Paulworld: “The fact that these people know and respect Mitch, and the fact that he respects Rand and they have a good relationship, is an important stamp of approval.” The adviser adds, “Obviously Ron Paul is Rand’s father and he’s the reason that Rand is involved in politics. But Mitch McConnell has power in a way that Ron Paul didn’t, and Rand is very intrigued by that.” Indeed, some Rand advisers told the New Republic’s Julia Ioffe earlier this year that they consider McConnell their boss’s “political father.”
Ron doesn’t seem to have a problem with any of this. Maybe that’s because he’s a classic proud dad, aspiring for his son to achieve heights he did not. Clearly Rand’s ascent has been a family project; back in 2010, Ron referred to Rand’s Senate bid as “our campaign.” And while Ron isn’t exactly Joe Kennedy conspiring to get his son elected president, he has been a public cheerleader for Rand’s grander ambitions. “I think he’s doing a very good job,” the elder Paul told MSNBC in September, when asked about his son’s plans for a White House bid.
The only person in Paulworld who seems to be putting the brakes on a Rand presidential run is his wife. Although Ashby has been a political consultant herself and is considered a huge political asset to Rand, she has not embraced what many see as the inevitable next step in her husband’s political career. Ashby’s hesitation about a Rand presidential bid, she explained to Jason Horowitz in Vogue this past September, is “because in this day and age it’s mostly about character assassination. When I think of the tens of millions of dollars in opposition research that they’d be aiming right at us and our family—that’s what it’s about
Ashby’s worries may well account for the other big difference between Rand and Ron: The son seems to be a lot more thin-skinned than the father. Throughout his career, the elder Paul essentially shrugged off (or just ignored) the various scandals that would attach themselves to him—such as, for instance, whether he wrote a passel of racist newsletters. Rand has responded far more viscerally when questioned. According to some people in Paulworld, that’s because his wife has responded so viscerally. Back in 2010, when I wrote in GQ about some of Paul’s zany college behavior, I was told the story deeply upset Ashby, who hadn’t known about that part of her husband’s past and was further worried about how the revelation might affect the couple’s three sons. That, in turn, prompted Rand to go ballistic; his campaign sent an email to supporters denouncing my story as “the libelous attacks of the leftist media.”
He’s responded similarly to subsequent kerfuffles. When CNBC’s John Harwood recently asked Paul about one of his aides who was discovered to have made a number of racially insensitive remarks in his previous capacity as a radio shock jock known as the “Southern Avenger”—and who ultimately resigned because of those remarks—Paul bristled, “Don’t you have something better to read than a bunch of crap from people who don’t like me?” (For the aide’s side of things, see this piece he wrote for Politico Magazine.) And when Paul was recently accused of plagiarism, lifting chunks of Wikipedia for some speeches as well as previously published material for a newspaper column and one of his books, he acknowledged the error but was still defiant, blaming the allegations on “haters” and telling the New York Times, “What we are going to do from here forward, if it will make people leave me the hell alone, is we’re going to do them like college papers.” Sure enough, just this week he used the phrase “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” in a press release and dutifully included a footnote citing “Popeye.” Was he angry at being questioned? It’s hard not to coming away thinking so.
But if Paul thinks he has a lot of haters now, things will very likely only get worse for him if he ultimately decides to run for president. And at a certain point, he will have to decide if he’s capable of putting up with it. After all, unlike most of the other people currently contemplating a presidential bid, Paul hasn’t been running for the White House since he was in high school. Part of him probably wouldn’t even mind going back to his ophthalmology practice, and the simpler life that entails. In that respect, the war over whether Rand Paul runs for president isn’t so much within his family as it is within Paul himself.
As he made clear Sunday in an interview with Fox News. “The thought [of running for president] has crossed my mind. I am seriously thinking about it,” he said. But then Paul added: “I’m also very serious about the family considerations. You know, just look at what happens daily to any politician in America, and you talk about how uncivil things are — I mean, they really are, and they do take a toll on family … I mean, sometimes you have a good week, and the next week they pound you to death, and, you know, the haters and the hacks go after you … it is really an ordeal to be in public life sometimes.”
Jason Zengerle is senior staff writer at Politico Magazine.