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
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT