SAHIL KAPUR – APRIL 17, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT
The GOP establishment is wasting no time declaring war on Rand Paul's presidential ambitions as the Kentucky senator drops a trail of clues that he's eying a 2016 run for the White House.
The base's attraction to the son of libertarian iconoclast Ron Paul came into focus last month after the younger Paul won the CPAC straw poll -- an imperfect but notable test for president candidates -- by a commanding margin. Last weekend, Paul spoke to conservative activists at the Freedom Summit in the key state of New Hampshire about the future of the GOP, telling them the party must win over blacks and Hispanics. His overtures have irked establishment figures, many of whom want to keep Paul as far away from the nomination as possible.
Their beef has a policy flavor and a "winnability" flavor.
Military hawks in the Republican tent resent Paul's anti-war, anti-intervention, anti-surveillance views. In recent days, they've attacked Paul for recently unearthed comments he made in 2009 suggesting former Vice President Dick Cheney used the 9/11 attacks as an excuse to invade Iraq and potentially enrich his former company, the defense contractor Halliburton.
National Review editor Rich Lowry equated Paul's remarks with the "anti-Bush Left," arguing in a Tuesday piece that the senator's "instincts sometimes seem more appropriate to a dorm-room bull session than the Situation Room." Lowry wrote that Paul's foreign policy views reflected "dewy-eyed foolishness" and were out of step with the party's mainstream.
A pair of posts at the neo-conservative FreeBeacon.com accused Paul of "courting the truther vote," referring to conspiracy theorists who believe the Bush administration had prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. The website made clear it wasn't accusing Paul of being a truther, but argued he was playing to the "far left."
Policy aside, Republican strategists worry that Paul's history of shady associations and off-color comments make him unelectable.
"He has significant liabilities," said John Feehery, a Republican operative turned lobbyist. "His father casts a big shadow over his future ambitions. His wholesale attack on the NSA is irresponsible and counter-productive. The pro-Israel wing of the party fundamentally distrusts him." Feehery allowed that Paul has "shaken up the establishment" on matters like drug laws and has been a "good team player," making him a "potential leader of the party in the future."
Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal wrote a satirical column on Monday saying Republicans should nominate Paul for president, "Because maybe what the GOP needs is another humbling landslide defeat. When moderation on a subject like immigration is ideologically disqualifying, but bark-at-the-moon lunacy about Halliburton is not, then the party has worse problems than merely its choice of nominee."
Keep in mind, this is just the beginning. The GOP establishment war on Paul's ambitions is likely to intensify as the presidential primaries near. As Slate's Dave Weigel reports, Paul's problems extend beyond his problematic comments in the past -- calling into question the validity of the Civil Rights Act, for instance. His family has a history of dark associations involving racist newsletters and donations from white supremacists, all of which can be deeply damaging to the junior senator on the presidential stage.
"The jackals run loose, and they know where to hunt," wrote Weigel. "Years of experience and evidence tell us that Paul can be rattled by that."