In the remake of Oceans Eleven, when Brad Pitt’s character discovers Danny Ocean is trying to win back his ex-wife, Tess, while simultaneously trying to knock over a casino, the former harrumphs: “The problem is, now we’re stealing two things. And if you can’t have both, which do you choose?”
This sums up the challenge so many conservatives face when everyone is running for president. It’s not that selling yourself and selling a policy are mutually exclusive (sometime, they’re even complimentary). It’s just that things can get complicated.
The most recent example is Sen. Rand Paul, who is hoping to raise his national profile and simultaneously boost concerns about civil forfeiture laws by opposing Loretta Lynch’s nomination for attorney general. This is not a new cause for the Kentucky senator; last summer he introduced a law to reform the system, and protect the right’s of property owners. But in Lynch, Paul might finally have the news hook needed to foist this issue into the headlines.
AS Yahoo’s Jon Ward writes, “Paul’s case against Lynch goes to her work as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, where she presided over implementation of the forfeiture laws, including the government seizure of $113 million in private assets from individuals on the suspicion that they had committed crimes.”
The operative word here is “suspicion.” As Ward goes on to note, in some cases, the IRS has seized hundreds of thousands of dollars from people without charging them with a crime. They then went on to hold on to this money for years.
On the surface, this sounds like a slam dunk for Paul, but it’s not. Part of the problem is that Attorney General Eric Holder just walked out kinda sorta reforming asset forfeiture laws, and garnered media praise for it. This makes Rand’s opposition look a little more craven—an appeal solely to the Breitbart readership.
What’s more, as the media sours on Paul—particularly in the wake of this vaccine business—the facts on the ground have changed for him. He can’t expect praise for standing up for something with broad liberal support, such as asset forfeiture reform, like he could with, say, drones a few years back. And this isn’t the first time this has happened: his attempt to introduce a declaration of war against ISIS went up in smoke the second he floated it.
A well-run movement requires role players and supporting actors. Not everyone is the front man. But this is undermined by the fact that everyone wants to be a star these days.
To be sure, running for president has much to recommend it, but it, by definition, suggests the elected officials running have ulterior motives—that they’re secretly trying to steal the show and upstage the other players. True, sometimes even losing candidates elevate policy ideas, but it’s probably harder to quantify the ideas that have been aborted because the person floating it was running for president. Along those lines, Paul has gone from “the most interesting man in politics”—a rebel willing to challenge party orthodoxy and therefore an easy candidate for hero status in the media—to another Republican presidential candidate, and therefore worthy of intense scrutiny and skepticism.
Two years ago he was the libertarian Mr. Smith gone to Washington, a guy trying to shake up the system, consequences be damned. Now every move he makes is seen through the prism of 2016 positioning, and is taken less seriously.
The link between Lynch and civil forfeiture probably makes this gambit irresistible. But I wonder about the framing. Will the media portray Paul’s opposition as the result of a sincere policy disagreement (in which case, Paul is on the side of the angels), or as a Republican trying to block the first African-American woman to serve as attorney general?
Even amongst his friends on right, will Republicans champion this cause, see it as self-serving, or dismiss it as simply a fool’s errand (after all, the alternative is Eric Holder keeping his job a bit longer)?
And what happens when the reasons for opposing Lynch become broader, and thus, more opaque?
As CNN Reports, Sen. Ted Cruz “has pushed Republicans to hold up Lynch’s confirmation as a procedural move to gain leverage against Obama over immigration.” (Paul has also cited immigration as a reason for opposing the nomination.) Isn’t it likely that this somewhat ironically undermines Paul’s message, turning this into a standard “Republicans don’t like Obama’s nominee” story?
My guess is that there will come a tipping point whereby the risk-reward ratio for holding up the Lynch nomination will no longer make sense. The key for Paul will be to maximize the attention he can bring to this issue by getting as close to the line as he can get without crossing it.
But the problem is that this should be an obvious “win,” and the fact that it’s not speaks to the obstacles and challenges conservatives face. And the fact that Paul is almost definitely running for president means that he will be weighing multiple considerations.
Despite his penchant for backpedaling and missteps on topics ranging from Russia to immigration to vaccinations, Paul deserves credit for championing issues that make common sense (seriously, how is seizing our property even Constitutional?) and beating up on the Obama administration in ways that fit neatly into Paul’s brand of libertarianism.
As an added bonus, these issues would theoretically help rebrand the GOP as a 21st century party (see Paul’s stand against mandatory minimums). In this regard, Paul has fulfilled an important function for the GOP. And yet, one gets the sense that it isn’t working. Not yet, at least.
And as noted above, there’s a real chance that this gambit—which should be a slam dunk—might even backfire.