Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is for real. He currently leads the Republican field in the 2016 New Hampshire presidential primary, and places a close second among Republican voters nationally. It's still very, very early to be making 2016 predictions, but it's undeniable that Paul is a real contender.
And yet... there's no getting around the fact that Paul holds views that are anathema to many other Republicans, especially when it comes to foreign policy.
For instance, in a major foreign policy address to the Heritage Foundation, Paul touted "a foreign policy that is reluctant" and "restrained by Constitutional checks and balances." He claimed that "Western occupation fans the flames of radical Islam," a view derided as "blaming America" by some conservatives. In July 2011, Paul wrote a New York Times op-ed with two Democratic senators calling for full withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2012. He has even characterized aid to Israel as "welfare."
Could someone committed to moving the Republican Party toward isolationism really win the presidential nomination?
Yes. There is a road that leads to a Paul acceptance speech. But that road might also lead to the end of the Republican Party.
History suggests Paul will come up short in the primaries. When the Republican "establishment" squares off with the right-wing "base" in presidential politics, the establishment almost always wins. Not since 1980 has the conservative movement successfully nominated one of its own.
The impotence of the hard right was evident in 2008 and 2012, as conservative leaders furiously tried to stymie the respective campaigns of Sen. John McCain and former Gov. Mitt Romney, and failed. Why? They couldn't consolidate their forces.
In 2012, conservatives abandoned Romney but couldn't find a serious alternative among the laughable field of Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Herman Cain. In 2008, conservatives splintered between Romney, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, and former Sen. Fred Thompson, letting McCain win key early primaries with less than 40 percent of the vote.
Since you don't need 50 percent of the vote to win primaries in a crowded field, all the victor needs to do is consolidate more factions than everyone else. Typically, the well-financed establishment candidates prove best able to woo the, shall we say, earthbound Republican voters, while the wingnuts scatter.
But in 2016, this historical pattern may well be broken.
The emerging field looks top-heavy with establishment-friendly candidates: Obama-hugger Gov. Chris Christie, immigrant-defender Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Bobby "Stop Being The Stupid Party" Jindal, and Mr. Establishment Jeb Bush. Even Ayn Rand-disciple Rep. Paul Ryan recently distanced himself from the Tea Party by voting for the partial repeal of the Bush tax cuts and embracing immigration reform.
Meanwhile, Rand Paul is beginning to lock up the base.
In the Public Policy Polling survey of New Hampshire, Rand Paul has 28 percent, Rubio and Christie also score double digits, followed by Bush and Ryan with 7 percent each. Elsewhere on the far-right flank, neither Santorum nor Perry can break 5 percent. At least at this early stage, Paul has the market cornered.
Of course, there is no guarantee the establishment will remain split and the base will solidify around Paul in the end. The above simply shows there is a plausible scenario in which Paul can snatch the nomination without the establishment's blessing.
That raises a very important question: Would the subsequent divide between Paul and the Republican establishment lead to the party's eventual collapse? This is not as farfetched as it might sounds. There is certainly a risk that this might happen, as Paul breaks with party orthodoxy and threatens the fundamentals of the Republican coalition.
Republicans have long characterized their coalition as a "three-legged stool" of fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, and national security conservatives. Paul's vision of a "reluctant" foreign policy saws one of those legs clean off. We saw a preview of how deep the rift could be when McCain called Paul and his allies "wacko birds" for filibustering President Obama's CIA nominee to protest drone policy.
More important but less noticed was McCain's April 18 speech to the Center for New American Security that threw down the gauntlet against the Paul forces, lashing out against isolationism and calling for "a new Republican internationalism." He concluded by lamenting, "There are times these days when I feel that I have more in common on foreign policy with President Obama than I do with some in my own party."
Where might the "new Republican internationalists" go if Paul wins this intra-party battle? Considering that likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton helped engineer the U.N.-backed military coalition that ousted Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and reportedly pushed Obama to directly arm the Syrian resistance, it's not hard to envision a "Republicans for Hillary" campaign if the alternative is Rand Paul.
Such a scenario could prove to be only a temporary decampment. The 1972 "Democrats for Nixon" effort helped sink Sen. George McGovern, but it did not doom the Democratic Party. George Romney's prediction that the 1964 nomination of Barry Goldwater spelled the "suicidal destruction of the Republican Party" did not prove prophetic either.
Even the rift caused by Teddy Roosevelt's walkout from the 1912 Republican convention to form a new Progressive Party was healed four years later. Roosevelt, itching to enter World War I, was determined to defeat Woodrow Wilson (then running for re-election on the slogan "He Kept Us Out Of War") and was willing to overlook the isolationism that remained among Republicans. Often, a common enemy forces factions to paper over differences.
But sometimes the differences are too great. The last major party to collapse was the Whigs, formed in 1834 to oppose the policies of Democratic President Andrew Jackson. But by the 1850s, the issue of slavery was unavoidable and the Whigs fatally split.
A Paul nomination would bring with it, at minimum, the risk of Republicans going the way of the Whigs. The dueling speeches between Paul and McCain represent an enormous divide over bedrock principles of foreign policy that may not be easily tolerated, especially if the 2016 campaign is fought against the backdrop of a pressing foreign policy crisis.
And if any contemporary politician might be willing to bet his political legacy on supplanting a wayward Republican Party with a new party, it would be John McCain. He has long branded himself a "Teddy Roosevelt Republican."