This has been quite a year for Paul. Not long ago, he was mainly known as the son of the (now retired) gadfly Texas congressman Ron Paul, the perennial presidential loser who often seemed to have wandered into GOP-primary debates directly from an SNL sketch. Like his father, Rand Paul has been dismissed by most Democrats as a tea-party kook and by many grandees in his own party as a libertarian kook; the Republican Establishment in his own state branded him "too kooky for Kentucky" in his first bid for public office. Now BuzzFeed has anointed him "the de facto foreign policy spokesman for the GOP"—a stature confirmed when he followed Obama's prime-time speech on the Syrian standoff with a televised mini-address of his own.
But even before an international crisis thrust him center stage, Paul had become this year's most compelling and prescient political actor. His ascent began in earnest in March with the Twitter-certified #standwithrand sensation of his Ayn Rand and Gabriel García Márquez. He has, in the words of Rich Lowry of National Review, "that quality that can't be learned or bought: He's interesting."
Nature abhors a vacuum, and Paul doesn't hide his ambitions to fill it. In his own party, he's the one who is stirring the drink, having managed in his very short political career (all of three years) to have gained stature in spite of (or perhaps because of) his ability to enrage and usurp such GOP heavyweights as John McCain, Mitch McConnell, and Chris Christie. He is one of only two putative presidential contenders in either party still capable of doing something you don't expect or saying something that hasn't been freeze-dried into anodyne Frank Luntz–style drivel by strategists and focus groups. The other contender in the spontaneous-authentic political sweepstakes is Christie, but like an actor who's read too many of his rave reviews, he's already turning his bully-in-a-china-shop routine into Jersey shtick. (So much so that if he modulates it now, he'll come across as a phony.) Paul doesn't do shtick, he rarely engages in sound bites or sloganeering, and his language has not been balled up by a stint in law school or an M.B.A. program. (He's an ophthalmologist.) He speaks as if he were thinking aloud and has a way of making his most radical notions sound plausible in the moment. It doesn't hurt that some of what he says also makes sense.
As a foe of the bank bailout of 2008 and the Fed, Paul is anathema as much to the Republican Wall Street financial Establishment as he is to the party's unreconstructed hawks. Those two overlapping power centers can bring many resources to bear if they are determined to put over a Christie or Jeb Bush or a Rubio—though their actual power over the party's base remains an open question in the aftermath of the Romney debacle. What's most important about Paul, however, is not his own prospects for higher office, but the kind of politics his early and limited success may foretell for post-Obama America. He doesn't feel he has to be a bully, a screamer, a birther, a bigot, or a lock-and-load rabble-rouser to be heard above the din. He has principled ideas about government, however extreme, that are nothing if not consistent and that he believes he can sell with logic rather than threats and bomb-throwing. Unlike Cruz and Rubio, he is now careful to say that he doesn't think shutting down the government is a good tactic in the battle against Obamacare.
He is a godsend for the tea party—the presentable leader the movement kept trying to find during the 2012 Republican freak show but never did. Next to Paul, that parade of hotheads, with their overweening Obama hatred and their dog whistles to racists, nativists, and homophobes, looks like a relic from a passing era. For that matter, he may prove equally capable of making the two top Democratic presidential prospects for 2016, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, look like a nostalgia act.
This leaves Paul—for the moment at least—a man with a future. If in the end he and his ideas are too out-there to be a majority taste anytime soon, he is nonetheless performing an invaluable service. Whatever else may come from it, his speedy rise illuminates just how big an opening there might be for other independent and iconoclastic politicians willing to challenge the sclerosis of both parties in the post-Obama age.