One cannot just dismiss Rand Paul's bid for the Presidency in 2016 - anything, except Ted Cruz, is possible - but for Paul to be a formidable candidate, never mind actually win his party's nomination, he's going to have to overcome the sense, from multiple angles, that this run is something of a farce.
Karl Marx famously said that history - in Hegelian terms - plays out twice, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. It's not that, in one sense Rand Paul is a rerun of recent history; it's that he's a rerun on many levels. And that, I think, is why so many people have a hard time taking him too seriously. Which isn't the same as suggesting he's got nothing to offer... just that what he offers is often easily dismissed.
Most obviously, Rand has been groomed to be the heir apparent to his father, former Congressman Ron Paul, leader of (such as it is) the nation's Libertarian movement. The last few presidential cycles have been highlighted by Ron Paul's fairly quixotic campaigns, and a slightly horrified sense that grew in Republican circles that the elder Paul could not entirely be dismissed, followed by relaxed sighs when he was, generally, dismissed.
The conventional thinking goes that the elder Paul carried to much bad baggage from the fringes of Libertarianism - connection to some ugly strains of racism and white supremacy, as well as a general sense that "Libertarian" and "crackpot" aren't that dissimilar. And as his star rose on the right, Rand Paul has been touted as the potential stalking horse for his father's ambitions - more reasonable, less wild eyed, saddled with less of the fringey baggage. And now, perhaps, we will get to see if this theory passes the laugh test.
If Ron Paul's campaigns were tragic - and certainly his potential role of spoiler never materialized as strongly as his die hard supporters ever promised - Rand Paul surely has the potential to be a Libertarian farce. At least with Ron Paul, there was little doubt about his status as a True Believer; everything he espoused on issue after issue came through the prism of Libertarian thought. With Rand Paul, it's harder to divine when the belief is true, or when he's adopted a convenient pose for political expediency. While libertarian beliefs have led him to interesting positions on criminal justice, covert spying and foreign aid, Senator Paul is often just falling into the same right side arguments as his potential opponents, simply a small government supply sider who also wants prison reform. And by diluting Libertarian beliefs into a convenient rhetorical workaround to the same conservative end, he turns the serious potential of Libertarians to dominate as a "third way" for Republican politics into a farce of itself for his personal gain. How those tensions play out in Libertarian circles will, in their way, be fascinating to watch.
But the fact that Rand Paul does, often, seem like a rhetorical lightweight speaks volumes to his real appeal as the second coming of George W. Bush. I don't mean that Paul in any way emulates Bush's failures, but that he taps into the same relaxed, fratboy collegiate spirit embodied by W (himself, after all, the somewhat dismal example of why father-son Presidential ambitions don't play out well). Senator Paul's appeal, rests, in large measure, on the appeal that Libertarianism has among young collegiate men; Republicans generally understand that Paul has picked a lock with young people that much of its older white establishment cannot figure out. But as with the right's appeal to older, angry white people, the appeal of Paul to college frat boys is about success within a dwindling piece of the overall population.
Bush's seventies era fratboy chic - the age of the boys of Animal House and such - has become, for most, a pale imitation of what it once was. Power no longer rests in the hands of these future movers and shakers, their antics on campus are now more likely the stuff of scandal than silent admiration, and their resistance to change no longer simply a quaint relic. (And don't get me wrong - I never said that was change for the better: I also majored in cocktail party, after all.) Paul's embrace of the dwindling ranks of angry young white men makes no more sense, in the long run than John McCain, or Ron Paul, or many others embracing the older angry white factory worker or retiree; all of these ranks are dwindling, none can, by themselves, constitute the majority rule they once did. And the "Libertarian" aspect of what they espouse - fed with healthy doses of the most selfish aspects of Ayn Randian "objectivism" - amounts to a call for limiting government's ability to hold their remaining privileges in check: it's easy to say there should be no limits on liberty when you have more than everyone else to start with. Freedom to hold onto inherited wealth, freedom to benefit from inherent biases... that's not liberty, it's self interest.
Rand - whose name does not come from Ayn, but just an interesting way to shorten "Randy" - is being sold at this point as some one who can shake up the traditional calculus between left and right in national elections; that presentation neatly elides Paul's real dilemma, which is how he can possibly cobble together the victories needed to prevail not just over a super-Establishment figure like Jeb Bush, but the far truer believers who capture the hard right's heart like Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum. And even if he does prevail, casting himself as Hillary Clinton's worst nightmare would sound better if he ever, ever remotely polled near her in head-to-head matchups. So far it's not even close. And remember, it's Paul who elicited Clinton's enraged "What difference does it make" outburst during Senate hearings on Benghazi. And though the right likes to use that line as emblematic of Clinton's high-handedness, it's worth remembering that Clinton's supporters liked the rage she expressed, because Paul's questions were so unserious. It's telling that no one, really, pays attention to his side of that exchange.
There's no doubt that Paul will make an entertaining addition to the field - he's chatty, quotable, at ease with the popular culture and conversant in the trendy things that interest the kids. Surely, Paul may singlehandedly drag the Republicans into the age of tacit support for wider acceptance of pot. And that, in itself, is wildly transformative. But transforming the party of your uptight parents into the party of its hard partying college kids indicates the absurdity of Paul's real accomplishments: the party of those uptight grown ups is tragic. Building a political party around the right to party is, well, a farce. And that's what you get... the second time around.