Skip to main content

New leader of the GOP: Rand Paul

By Mo Elleithee, Special to CNN
March 9, 2013 -- Updated 0250 GMT (1050 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mo Elleithee says the week highlighted split in the GOP
  • He says Rand Paul is getting his message out better than Rubio, Ryan, Cantor
  • For GOP, danger is that he Paul could push 2016 further to the right, he says
  • Elleithee: Paul combined old tool of filibuster with new media to make his point

Editor's note: Mo Elleithee was senior spokesman and traveling press secretary for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in 2008 and has worked for or advised other Democratic candidates and committees. He is a founding partner of two political consulting firms and has served on the faculty of Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute since 2011.

(CNN) -- A few weeks ago, Time Magazine ran its now-famous cover: "The Republican Savior: How Marco Rubio became the new voice of the GOP."

Only time will tell if the junior senator from Florida lives up to that billing, and it's entirely possible that Time will be proven wrong in the coming months and years.

But there's one cover that the magazine could run now and be entirely confident in: "The Republican Messenger: How Rand Paul became the real voice of the GOP."

Mo Elleithee
Mo Elleithee

That's right. At least for the time being, tea party darling Sen. Rand Paul is the effective leader of the Republican Party. And that's a pretty big deal.

The GOP's shellacking in 2012 has thrust a new generation of Republicans -- including leaders like Rubio, Rep. Paul Ryan, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Govs. Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie -- into the spotlight. But it's Paul who has become the clearest voice of the new guard in the Republican Party. And he is effectively driving the entire GOP message right now.

Think about it. No one else in the GOP has been able to step into a real leadership position, no matter how hard they try. Paul Ryan? He's back in the halls of Congress trying to figure out how to repackage his failed fiscal approach. John Boehner and Eric Cantor? Congressional Republicans have an approval rating in the low teens.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



John McCain and Lindsey Graham? Each day they seem less like elder statesmen and more like Statler and Waldorf from the "Muppet Show." Chris Christie? He may be the nation's most popular governor, but conservative groups find Sarah Palin and Donald Trump more compelling these days. Bob McDonnell? He's already got a conservative SuperPAC running ads against him in Iowa! Jeb Bush? His reentry to the national political dialogue this week was clumsy at best.

Paul is the only guy who appears able at this point to step into the GOP leadership void. There are two reasons why.

First, Paul has proven that he has the ability to punch his message through in a way that no one else in the Republican Party can.

He's clear. Whether or not you agree with him (and I rarely do), you know where he stands. He articulates his message more clearly than most people in Washington.

He's principled. He's more ideologically consistent than many people in Washington (though admittedly, that's not the highest of bars these days). He's willing to take on leaders of both parties to make a point.

While many senators in his party have held up nominations for petty political reasons, Paul held up John Brennan's nomination over a principled stand that attracted attention from both progressives and conservatives. And as several commentators said after the fact, it's easy to believe that he would have done the same under a Republican president.

Paul's also proven to be a master of both old and new media. Just look at this week. He had the entire traditional political press corps and mainstream media focused on him like a laser beam by utilizing one of the most old school tools available to a senator -- the filibuster. Yet he made it feel new.

For weeks, the press had been reporting on the use of silent filibusters to hold up nominations and on the attempts at filibuster reform. So Paul, by forsaking a tool that so many of his colleagues seem to love, and understanding how to capitalize on an existing media narrative, came across looking courageous and principled and dominated the news cycle for 24 hours. But what made the move truly genius, was that he launched it through Twitter. And as fellow tea party Sen. Ted Cruz stated later on the Senate floor, the twitterverse blew up -- further driving the message in both old and new media.

Compare that to Marco Rubio's response to the State of the Union Address. For all of the hype that led up to his speech, what will people truly remember? That he stopped in the middle to take a drink of water, and that he gave a version in Spanish. That's pretty much it. In the breathless rush to rebrand the GOP by party leaders, that second point was heralded as a major success.

But as to the ability to punch through an actual message, Rand Paul is running circles around everyone else.

The second reason why Paul has become the party's most effective messenger is that everyone across the entire ideological spectrum -- from John McCain, Rubio and The Wall Street Journal to Majority Leader Harry Reid and Attorney General Eric Holder -- is responding to him.

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz rushed to floor to bask in the glory of Paul's "filiblizzard." Attorney General Holder sent him a letter clarifying the administration's position on drones. Reid and Minority Leader McConnell took to the Senate floor to applaud Paul's conviction (and bladder control).

It wasn't all love, however. Fellow Republican Sens. McCain and Graham took to the floor to blast him for his position. The problem is that they are decidedly old guard. The new faces in the party fell all over themselves to "#standwithrand."

Rand Paul has people listening and responding to him. He's dictating the conversation. And when you look at the ineptitude of the rest of the Republican message machine, it's pretty clear that he is one of the few people in his party that know how to do that.

Van Jones: Rand Paul, a civil liberties hero and civil rights villain

Now, that doesn't mean Paul doesn't have serious problems. On most issues, he is seriously outside of the mainstream. He often gets his facts dangerously wrong -- like when he falsely argued that the number of government employees grew under President Obama, or when he alleged that the U.S. was smuggling weapons out of Libya to Turkey, without any proof.

And at a time when most Americans are starving for leaders willing to cross party lines and find common ground, he is about as far from compromise as you can get.

It's that last point that may be why Paul is so dangerous to the Republican Party moving forward. Paul said this week that he is seriously considering a run for President in 2016. The more he steps in to fill the GOP's gaping leadership vacuum, the more others -- and particularly other potential 2016 presidential candidates -- will chase him.

That means Republican leaders run the risk of seeming even more strident, more intolerant, more uncompromising, and more outside the mainstream than they did in 2012. Those, like Christie, that buck this trend run the risk of being ostracized by the conservative grassroots -- something that not a lot of potential Republican 2016ers have shown much interest in doing.

Even if Paul doesn't become the nominee, he has the potential to shape the GOP field in a way that few others can at this point. In short, for now, it's Rand Paul's party. And it seems like so many other Republicans are simply trying to figure out how to live in it.

(Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the number of federal employees had not grown under President Obama; in fact, the total number of government employees at all levels has not grown since he took office.)

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mo Elleithee.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2331 GMT (0731 HKT)
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2350 GMT (0750 HKT)
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT)
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT