Rand Paul may not beat Ted Cruz in presidential primaries, but he certainly topped him in his announcement of candidacy.
In the end, neither of these freshman senators (Paul has served four years in Washington; Cruz has been there for two) is likely to win the GOP nomination but they are the first pair to formally enter the race, and they’re competing for the same segment of party, so it’s pertinent to compare their performances.
When it comes to the staging of the two events, both candidates did well. They each addressed enthusiastic, youthful crowds – Cruz at Liberty University in Virginia, Paul at a rally of supporters in Louisville. In the lead-up to his speech, Paul subjected the audience in the building (as well as viewers around the world) to a seemingly endless series of promotional videos which seemed so slick, manipulative and over-produced that they undermined his message of grass roots authenticity. But then the Kentucky event picked up electricity with the candidate’s wife, Kelley, introducing her partner. Strikingly attractive and undeniably charismatic in a vivid blue, she made a natural connection with the crowd and the cameras, speaking in strikingly personal terms about her husband’s virtues. She will be an obvious asset during a long campaign, while Senator Cruz had to settle for his announcement day introduction for a mumbling recitation of his resume by Liberty University’s bland chancellor.
In the speech itself, Rand began with a rousing call to “take our country back” – it’s a phrase I hate but there’s no denying that it works rhetorically. The problem with that slogan is that it leads to the inevitable question, “take our country back from whom?” Senator Paul answered that question with a quick reference to the “special interests” but when, would he say, did “the people” ever truly rule in Washington, keeping those powerful interests away from the corridors of power? Under President Bush? President Clinton? Even Presidents Reagan or Roosevelt? The calls to “take our country back” also strike many people of color as containing an inevitably racist component, since they arose only after the election of the first black president. In this sense, too much reliance on that slogan could actually undermine one of Senator Paul’s chief (and totally admirable) campaign goals, much in evidence at his announcement – to draw more substantial African-American support to the Republican Party.
In fact, bad sloganeering marred the entire Rand Paul event. I don’t believe that the official motto of the campaign festooned on placards, screens and banners at the rally - “Defeat the Washington Machine/Unleash the American Dream” – will last all the way to November. It’s simply too hokey and its imperfect-but-almost rhymed couplet scheme carries an unwelcome resonance of the previous failed candidacy of Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Nevertheless, Senator Paul proceeded to a strong address, listing plausible and specific reforms he wanted to lead as president: a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, term limits for members of Congress (which would also require a Constitutional amendment, by the way), establishing special tax-advantaged zones in impoverished areas of the country, school choice, reduction in corporate taxes to encourage companies to bring their profits home, an immediate end to governmental snooping on phone records, and so forth. It sounded like the sort of agenda that most conservatives (and libertarians, of course) could enthusiastically support, and the Senator presented it enthusiastically and effectively.
In contrast, by the time Senator Cruz finally arrived at a “vision” for America in his speech, that view seemed hazy, and far less plausible. For one thing, he took up the entire first segment of his address by asking people to “imagine,” in turn, the struggles of his father, his mother, his wife and himself, recalling the unspeakably painful reality that when he began his college education he didn’t know a single soul on the Princeton campus. Horrors! Moreover, Cruz continued his “imagine” theme right to the end of the address, asking his audience to try to visualize the end of Obama’s misrule. Of course his criticism of the current administration struck appropriate chords, but his speech contained very few specifics about a new or inspiring direction for the country. He seemed to rally on the idea that the very idea of Obama’s ultimate and inevitable departure provided inspiration enough.
In stylistic terms, Senator Cruz performed with his celebrated ability to deliver a long talk with no notes, no teleprompter; student stage hands ostentatiously removed the podium before he stepped to the stage, so he roamed the available space like a fleshly big cat, facing different elements of the audience that surrounded him, and often rubbing his hands together in a gesture that seemed reminiscent of his father, an evangelical pastor. Senator Paul, on the other hand, made expert use of a sophisticated, mostly invisible teleprompter, and delivered his carefully written and well-crafted speech with maximum impact. Both candidates are unquestionably smart and articulate, but for many – if not most – potential voters, the more conventional style of delivery favored by the Kentuckian will produce more comfort than the churchy approach by the Texan.
An announcement of candidacy is always important, but never decisive, and both Senators have now effectively launched their campaigns. Yet another freshman from the US Senate – Marco Rubio of Florida – plans his own formal declaration next week. It’s of course far too early to speak about front-runners or to handicap a very complicated horse race that is only beginning to take shape, but judging on their announcements alone, it seems inarguable that Rand Paul of Kentucky earns the early advantage.