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Unlike Father, Rand Paul Is Willing to Alter His Positions to Win

04/10/2015 04:25 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015
NICHOLAS KAMM via Getty Images

Some Libertarians who supported then U.S. Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) in his two failed quests for the Republican presidential nomination are irritated with his son, Rand Paul. Rand Paul, who recently entered the sweepstakes for the GOP presidential nomination, has moderated his positions on some key issues. For example, Rand asserted in 2007 that Iran's alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon "is not a threat." Yet in the U.S. Senate, he supported a resolution that called Iran's nuclear ambitions: "a tremendous threat." In another instance, Rand indicated his support for eliminating foreign aid to Israel. However, now he maintains: "I haven't proposed targeting or eliminating any aid to Israel." Then in 2011, Rand called for a 23 percent reduction in U.S military spending. Now he calls for a $190 billion increase in military spending.

Rand Paul is doing what any savvy political operative would advise him to do: alter and mainstream his message to appeal to as many voters in the Republican Primary as possible. Unlike Rand Paul, the elder Paul stuck vociferously to his ideological convictions. In his 2012 presidential campaign, the elder Paul surged, with strong showings in New Hampshire and Iowa. Then he hit a ceiling. Rather than adapt by amending his positions, Paul did not alter his non-interventionist foreign policy views and stood by his belief that the 9/11 hijackings were effectuated by blowback from the nation's interventionist foreign policy. Paul lost the GOP nomination. While Paul cultivated support from Independents, Libertarian-minded Republicans, and some Democrats who voted in Republican primaries, a Washington Post-ABC poll taken in 2011 showed that only 8 percent of self-identified "Conservative Republicans" viewed him as "strongly favorable."

The younger Paul knows that in the political big leagues, candidates of conviction who refuse to moderate their message or refuse to adapt to the prevailing contemporaneous political sentiment, are often abandoned at the alter by the electoral consumer. Be that as it may, candidates who change their beliefs are often labeled as "flip floppers." Yet the excoriation a candidate receives for altering a position is not as damaging as the opprobrium a candidate accrues from taking an unpopular position.

The three most recent presidents have shown a willingness to change positions in what many would view as rank electoral opportunism. In 1996, while running for an open State Senate seat in Illinois in a liberal area of Chicago, Barack Obama wrote: "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages." Then in 2008, as a presidential candidate appealing to a more ideological heterogeneous constituency, Obama exclaimed: "I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage." In 2012, with polls showing a wider acceptance of gay marriage, and with Vice President Joe Biden announcing his support for gay marriage, Obama, asserted: "I think same-sex couples should be able to get married." Many U.S. Senate Democrats also disavowed their past opposition to gay marriage with alacrity.

Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, had a similar electoral conversion. As a presidential candidate in 2000, Bush was a steadfast exponent of free trade. He pledged as president to: "end tariffs and break down barriers everywhere, entirely, so the whole world trades in freedom." Yet in 2003, just one year before his re-election, Bush uncharacteristically levied tariffs on imported steel, a move that was popular with the domestic steel industry in the electorally critical showdown states of Ohio and Pennsylvania. By contrast, two years later, Bush shepherded through the U.S. Congress the Dominican-Republican-Central American Free Trade Agreement, ignoring protests from Louisiana's Republican Governor Mike Foster that the treaty would "gradually wipe out the Louisiana sugar industry." Of course, Louisiana is a "safe Republican state." Like Obama and Rand Paul, Bush was willing to alter his ideals for electoral advantage.

In 1992, as Democratic presidential candidate Paul Tsongas picked up electoral support -- winning the primary in fiscally austere New Hampshire -- he refused to alter his fiscal austerity mantra. While his "root canal" economic policy of raising taxes, truncating federal spending, and controlling entitlement expenditures had played well in the Granite state, it was less popular in other parts of the nation. Tsongas held himself out as a man of convictions and would not support a 10 percent middle-class tax cut favored by one of his opponents, Bill Clinton. Tsongas averred: "I'm no Santa Clause." He also called Clinton a "pander bear" who "will say anything, do anything to get votes." Tsongas called Clinton a "cynical and unprincipled politician." Voters might have admired Tsongas's convictions, but it was Clinton's more populist message that struck a resonate chord with Democratic primary voters as Clinton secured the nomination.

Two recent presidential nominees, Democrat Al Gore and Republican Mitt Romney, had an ideological makeover, yet charges that they were unprincipled or flip-floppers did not stop voters from awarding them the presidential nomination.

Gore began his political career in 1976 by winning an open House Seat in culturally conservator middle Tennessee. He represented his constituents' views, supporting the Hyde Amendment, which disallows federal funding for abortion and "shall include unborn children from the moment of conception." Gore branded homosexuality "abnormal sexual behavior" and said it "is not an acceptable alternative that society should affirm."

In 1988, Gore ran as the most conservative presidential candidate, showcasing his support for tobacco farming, telling a North Carolina audience: "'I've chopped it. I've shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn and stripped it and sold it." In addition, in 2000, Gore ran for the presidential nomination as a supporter of abortion rights and gay rights, and was a supporter of regulations on the tobacco industry. Voters did not punish him for altering his views. He won the nomination.

In 1994, Romney challenged U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy in liberal Massachusetts. Romney supported abortion rights, favored federal campaign-spending limits, and said he would vote for the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. In 2002, while running for Governor of Massachusetts, Romney said: "I'm someone who's moderate. My views are progressive."

By the time he was running for the 2012 presidential nomination, Romney had disavowed each of these positions and now called himself: "severely conservative." Yet, like with Gore, voters granted Romney the nomination.

Rand Paul is one of a long line of presidential candidates who is willing to alter or change positions as the situation warrants. Like Tsongas, Ron Paul ran a campaign of stout consistency. He stuck to his ideals even when unpopular. Rand Paul is more in the mold of the other aforementioned politicians. He wants to break through his father's ceiling to garner the Republican presidential nomination and the Presidency. While a candidate who changes positions on issues is often steered off message to explain his/her altered positions, as a cold hard strategic political calculation, the scorn the candidate will take for modifying his/her positions may be worth the price. This is a simple cost-benefit analysis.

Perhaps Rand Paul has learned the lesson not only of his father and Paul Tsongas, but also of U.S. Senator Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (R-SC), who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 by pledging to reinstate the military draft and to freeze federal spending. Hollings never wavered from these unpopular views. The result: Hollings garnered just 3.5 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire presidential primary. Upon dropping out of the race, Hollings declared: "Well, nothing happened to me on the way to the White House."