America's eyes opening to ophthalmologist as unlikely potential president
Rand Paul is rapidly emerging as a leading Republican candidate for the White House, despite his challenging views on policing and foreign affairs
American Way: Matt Lewis
3:06PM BST 23 Aug 2014
US Senator Rand Paul likes to spend his vacations helping people to see better. Last week, the Kentucky senator (an ophthalmologist) was on a humanitarian mission, performing pro bono eye surgery in Salama, Guatemala.
And while some Guatemalans are sure to have better vision as a result, Americans are starting to envision the possibility he could be president.
Polls conducted by NBC News and Marist College last month showed him either winning or tied against leading Republican rivals in both the Iowa and New Hampshire presidential primaries.
This is not an aberration; Paul, who was elected in 2010, has long polled well in these important early states.
It's too early to make any serious predictions, but winning the first two primary contests would potentially set him up as a juggernaut for the Republican presidential nomination. As the Washington Post's Aaron Blake observed: "No non-incumbent Republican presidential candidate has won both states since they were granted first-in-the-nation status in 1976. Not one."
And while Paul's surprising potential for victory is, itself, noteworthy, the possibility that such an enigmatic figure could waltz into the US presidential nomination borders on the astounding.
Consider the contrasts: Rand Paul is the son of a former member of Congress and presidential candidate (his dad is former Texas Rep. Ron Paul), who retains his identity as a consummate outsider.
He's arguably the most active Republican working to woo African-American voters, yet he once raised doubts about the wisdom of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - and until recently, employed a writer who had adopted the moniker, "The Southern Avenger".
And while he wants to end President Barack Obama's programme to defer deportation of undocumented immigrants who came to America as children, he just spent several days performing free surgery on poor kids in Guatemala.
You get the idea...
But a Rand Paul nomination wouldn't just be surprising, it could also be transformational. Should he become the Republican Party's standard bearer, Paul would hearken back the days of Bob Taft Republicanism, potentially altering long-standing Republican orthodoxy over a wide range of issues -- from foreign policy, to NSA surveillance, to law and order.
One needn't search hard for examples. On the two most pressing issues confronting America last week - the rise of Islamic State and Islamism more generally in the Middle East, and the police shooting which sparked protests and looting in Ferguson, Missouri - Paul's positions are challenging, and relevant.
Regarding the war on terror, he has engaged in internecine public disputes with Republicans ranging from Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, to the Texas governor, Rick Perry, because of his essentially non-interventionist position.
Perry penned an op-ed in the Washington Post last month, noting that it was "disheartening" to hear fellow Republicans such as Paul "suggest that our nation should ignore what's happening in Iraq".
The main problem with Paul's argument, Perry continued, "is that it means ignoring the profound threat that the group now calling itself the Islamic State poses to the United States and the world."
(Perry is not alone in finding Paul's foreign policy somewhat myopic; the former vice president, Dick Cheney, has previously described the senator's policies as "isolationism.")
Meanwhile America faced a domestic crisis of protests and looting, in the wake of a police officer's shooting of the 18-year-old African-American, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri.
And, again, Paul's position was noteworthy. While Republicans have traditionally (and almost reflexively) sided with the cops, Paul responded to the incident by penning his own op-ed in Time magazine, which decried the increased "militarisation" of America's police, and spoke out about the institutional plight faced by American blacks when confronting the criminal justice system.
"Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention," Paul wrote. "Our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately long and harsh sentences for non-violent mistakes in their youth."
For taking such positions, some believe that Paul has the potential to tap into a younger demographic of tech-savvy social libertarians. But others argue that his candidacy risks losing some middle-America voters who have long voted Republican.
The problem with betting on him is that his success, so far, largely exists in a vacuum. His potential downsides have yet to be fully exploited.
One can imagine the damage that could be done by his Republican opponents, should they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads reminding voters of his unorthodox positions and past.
Still, one can't help thinking that if Paul keeps his eye on the prize, he could win.
Depending on how you look at him, he is either an isolationist crank who wants to roll back civil rights, or a compassionate humanitarian who wants to end American adventurism, abroad, and institute a humbler foreign policy.
But which vision of Rand Paul will Americans see more clearly, come 2016?