Rand Paul Controls the Wacko Bird Flight

Rand Paul is running to win the nomination, and he doesn’t mind using Ted Cruz as a comedic foil to help him do it.

Charles Dharapak/AP

It is sharp analytical thinking to continue to compare the Senate theatrics and political paths of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. But only if you #StandWithRand.

The real lesson from Cruz’s performance is that while both men are taking trips to Iowa, he and Paul are no longer running the same race.

Cruz is running to be the Tea Party candidate. Paul is running to win the nomination, and he doesn’t mind using Cruz as a comedic foil to help him do it.

While the filibuster and the not-a-buster served up an irresistible if somewhat lazy table for comparison, it should have shattered the group-think that both men are Tea Party presidential candidates.

Cruz is, and he might well have taken the crown of the Tea Party kingdom with his 22 hour talk that miraculously split Republican senators on their one unifying issue.

If Cruz has taken the movement’s championship belt, it can’t be ignored that Paul helped him put it on. And it’s certainly not because “wacko birds,” as Senator John McCain called the junior senators, flock together.

Paul has seen what happens when a candidate takes the tack Cruz appears to be taking with great relish. If a candidate starts on the fringe, he will get stuck there. And some labels don’t wash off.

Paul watched his father marginalized and mocked as he was trapped by the GOP establishment determination that he was a kook. Paul’s mission to avoid such a fate has long been clear. How he does so without alienating the movement that put him on the road to what is basically Senate Republican leadership at this point became clearer the more Cruz talked.

What Paul is showing now is that he has a knack for political maneuvering that separates contenders from the fringe and puts a premium on winning.

Paul isn’t Lee Atwater. But he seemed awfully happy to give Cruz a shove toward the streak of the Tea Party that wants to tighten its ranks for the sake of purity. And he did it under a somewhat credible guise of friendship.

That’s the kind of thinking that wins elections.

Standing next to Cruz, Paul found the next step on his path to widening his appeal beyond the Tea Party, and it was just a short climb up using Cruz as a step-ladder. Paul has deliberately and cautiously walked toward a bigger audience, not toward the political center—his positions on abortion, gun control, dismantling the federal government and Obamacare, are the same he had when he left Kentucky—but more toward a personality center.

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With each step, his 13-hour filibuster on drones being the giant leap, Paul draws suspicion from his Tea Party base but an as yet to be defined, but promising, Republican center ground.

The path from Kentucky rebel movement candidate to Republican presidential nominee is long and perilous and unprecedented. But Paul is moving forward, and he is enjoying success from the illusion of separation.

Now, with more than three years before the 2016 election, Paul has attained the level of fashionable, earning him the description of “interesting” from Frank Rich in New York Magazine and a defense from The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein lest readers lump Paul into Cruz’s category.

It’s a matter of style over voting records. Affable versus bombastic. They’re both Tea Party, but Paul’s not that kind of Tea Party. Don’t worry, the story seems to be, he can’t win the White House. But he’s interesting.

Media critics might question the methodology, but Paul didn’t go from crazy to cool overnight or by accident. He laid groundwork with a series of speeches aimed at selling himself as a reasonable man choosing his message for the moment instead of a stubborn kamikaze insistence on smacking voters with the same message over and over again, making no changes except to raise the volume.

The Tea Party brought Paul to Washington. When he got here, he started building a foundation on top of that with a goal that one day the top floor would be at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Cruz appears intoxicated by the cheers from the Tea Party that got him elected, but he is still playing the part of insurgent Senate candidate. He’s not building anything.

What’s more, Cruz either doesn’t know or doesn’t care what Paul knows so well—there is an immovable ceiling of support for a movement candidate. And worse, some labels don’t wash off.

If there has to be a Tea Party movement candidate, Paul sure doesn’t seem to want to be it, and there is risk for Paul if he’s caught pushing it on Cruz.

By helping Cruz take on that role, Paul opens himself up to attacks of treachery from his base, but every cry of treason further legitimizes him with middle of the road Republicans sick of losing with John McCain and Mitt Romney but aware there are limited paths to victory with the Tea Party as the engine.

Rand is staking out his middle. Perhaps most impressive is that he is doing so without moving an inch from the same staunch conservative positions he had back in Bowling Green, Kentucky. It’s less that Paul is moving to the center. It’s more that he is deciding where the center will be, and trying to make it a safe place for disaffected and directionless Republicans to go.

Cowing McConnell, McCain, and Senator Lindsey Graham, the establishment that wanted to push Paul into the same box as his father and throw away the key, was probably an easier and faster task than Paul could’ve imagined.

The magic and resonance of Paul’s filibuster of CIA director John Brennan followed by the 180 he forced the party of Iraq and Afghanistan to take on Syria made clear that Paul, not McConnell or McCain, was the man to follow.

The Tea Party doesn’t adhere to the same rules for success or failure as the establishment, which makes them so dangerous. Turning McConnell on Syria will feel like cake by comparison.

The larger concern for Paul is keeping his base from crumbling underneath him while he stands on it to reach beyond the heights of a movement candidate.

And Cruz is the perfect disguise to help him do it, the Jerry Lewis to Paul’s Dean Martin.

What sets them apart is not just the rhetoric or the wisdom of their big-moment issue or even the two years of experience that Paul, elected in 2010, has over Cruz, who was sworn in this year.

It’s that after they won their respective Tea Party-fueled races, Paul as Martin starred in Rio Bravo and melted hearts with Volare. Cruz might knock ‘em dead with The Nutty Professor, but it’s likely a good thing he’s getting in some telethon training now.

Pretending to lend a hand, Paul rode Cruz through the muddy waters of an issue that to a lot of folks has been settled by the Supreme Court and a presidential election.

While Cruz was cheered on by the Tea Party, other Republicans finally had some cover to step out. The result was the equivalent of locking yourself inside your car. Cruz divided the Republican Party on healthcare.

And Paul found himself standing in the middle of that divide.

Paul isn’t a phony or a flip-flopper on Obamacare. He hated it then, and he hates it now. Damnit, Jim, he’s a doctor.

And the Tea Party faithful, many back in Kentucky who are furious that Paul went establishment by backing a wounded McConnell, if they tuned in to watch Cruz’s heroics, they saw that Paul was there too.

But if Paul’s Martin and Lewis methodology was on full display during Cruz’s maligned whateverthatwas, the crack in the dam that could ultimately be Paul’s undoing became clear as well.

When Paul returned to the Senate floor for the second time to lend a hand—or a shove—he lobbed largely untrue non-insults at President Obama, accusing him basically of drafting the whole plan himself despite the billion years it seemed to take to get through Congress in Obama’s brutal first two years in office.

When Paul spoke again at 8:42 p.m.—primetime whether it’s C-Span or American Idol—he made a slight error by broaching the verboten subject of compromise without clarifying that what he meant was the latest funky plan to come through the House that would act as a weak but tangible counter to Obama’s veto pen.

Taking a shot at Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, likely winning nods of approval from the Tea Party crowd and confusing the rest of the viewing audience, Paul followed with “twice by my count,” wrote Joel B. Pollack on, asking Cruz if he would be open to compromise with the president on Obamacare.

“It did not come across as the typical sort of question asked by a supporter during a floor debate, meant to help a colleague draw out arguments,” Pollack wrote, exposing the limits of Cruz’s unwitting ability to camouflage Paul’s slow march to broader appeal.

While Cruz answered he would surely be open to compromise, about 18 hours into an admittedly doomed effort that if successful would’ve shut down the government, people like Pollack weren’t laughing at Jerry Lewis.

They were watching Paul.

The Kentucky senator’s success in broadening his appeal, dependent on a slow walk to a principled but friendly center of his own making without giving any wind to the perception he has gone Washington, was suddenly if briefly out in the open when Paul appeared to jump two steps ahead and in the opposite direction of the Tea Party.

It was noticeable only because Paul’s other big jump, endorsing McConnell, already raised suspicions to the point that was looking closely for what was either a mistake or a far more subtle acceleration to the center.

Reaching out to millennials, hitting McCain in a Buzzfeed interview by mentioning Mother Jones, the liberal magazine that helped sink Mitt Romney’s White House chances, is just Paul being his quirky self and more likely to go unnoticed by the Breitbart crowd despite Buzzfeed’s immense growth in traffic.

But a smart media strategy like bringing Paul’s wife into focus with a reporter for Vogue to soften the senator’s image becomes a liability if suspicious-minded, Internet-inhabiting movement members begin to wonder if there’s any connection between the Jason Horowitz who wrote about the Paul’s for Vogue and the Jason Horowitz who wrote about Romney the prep school bully for The Washington Post.

If they want to find a conspiracy, they will see the proof of one whether it’s real or imagined.

While the suspicious set appears largely contained within Kentucky—a problem that will likely require a triple lindy high dive of political maneuvering but not for a while—and it is far overshadowed by the immense boost in popularity that Paul secured with his actual filibuster on a issue with broad appeal (79 percent of respondents backed Paul’s effort in a Washington Post poll two weeks after the fact).

For now, there is no visible panic or even concern in the Paul universe. But those voices, the same that boosted Paul and Cruz, are shouting Cruz’s name more than Paul’s.

While Paul is playing at a higher level, he is in a precarious position, still reliant on his Tea Party base to support the inroads he makes elsewhere. A full-on revolt would leave him with nothing, and the shove he gave Cruz pushes the Texan stumbling into Paul’s former throne only this time in Iowa or South Carolina.

“I will go to my grave in debt to Rand Paul,” Cruz said early in his not-a-buster.

Wherever he ends up, Cruz is probably right that he’ll owe Paul for putting him there.

The way Paul is playing, a political grave is what Cruz might well get.