I watched a lot of Rand Paul this weekend, in person and on CSPAN, and as I did, my thoughts kept moving toward Max Cleland.
It has been 13 years since Cleland was voted out of the U.S. Senate, 13 years since Republicans ran ads featuring Osama bin Laden next to Cleland, branding the triple-amputee Vietnam veteran who was awarded Silver and Bronze stars and a Purple Heart as weak on national security because of votes he cast regarding creation of the Department of Homeland Security.
And it has been only 11 years since I first met Cleland in New Hampshire, when he was campaigning with then-U.S. Sen. John Kerry as Kerry ran for president, ultimately losing as Republicans successfully painted yet another Vietnam veteran as soft in the war on terror.
With those examples at the forefront of my mind, it was hard to imagine how the same party that defeated Cleland and Kerry could nominate Paul, the man who successfully brought at least a temporary end to the Patriot Act on Sunday night.
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Paul's efforts or antics on the Senate floor turned a lot of heads, including those of Democrats and independents giving a Republican a serious look and those of a host of Paul's Republican Senate colleagues, who were undoubtedly cursing his name.
On Monday morning, I contacted my old friend Jamal Simmons, a longtime national Democratic strategist and former Clinton administration official who worked for the presidential campaigns of former Florida Sen. Bob Graham and Wesley Clark, former supreme allied commander of NATO.
Simmons also worked for Cleland during that 2002 midterm race. And on Monday morning, he contributed money to a Republican for the first time in his life.
"I've never donated to a Republican before," Simmons said. "I'd never vote for him for president, but somebody has to force this debate."
Therein lies the promise and the problems that come with Paul's crusade against the Patriot Act amid his run for the Republican presidential nomination.
As the GOP's identity crisis plays out on a seemingly endless loop within Kentucky Republican politics — Tea Party versus establishment, hawks versus doves, Mitch McConnell versus Matt Bevin, McConnell versus Paul — it is becoming more difficult by the day to imagine Paul as his party's standard-bearer in 2016.
After 2008 and 2012 were dominated by the economy, 2016 could well be the first national security election the country has faced since 2004, when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were fresh on the electorate's mind.
Since then, the Republican Party has developed a real and formidable Libertarian streak, giving rise to Paul and others like him. But Paul was never content to be a fringe-movement politician, and he has made a lot of moves to get out of that corner.
Paul has sought to broaden the base of appeal for the GOP, calling for the party to do more to win over minorities and young voters, and he has won acclaim from quite a few Republicans, including McConnell, the Senate majority leader, for his efforts.
The problem, however, is that Paul's efforts to change the debate on national security might well marginalize him within his own party, even as he makes inroads with independents and Democrats.
And on Sunday night, the senator took a big step toward joining the family business, following in the footsteps of his father, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, as a movement politician, relying on moral victories because winning the White House was forever out of reach.
One sentence in particular, uttered by Paul on the Senate floor, pushed the candidate to a place he has always wanted to avoid — the fringe.
"People here in town think I'm making a huge mistake," Paul said. "Some of them, I think, secretly want there to be an attack on the United States so they can blame it on me."
Though he tried to walk it back Monday morning, that was vintage Rand Paul, a return to the man who in 2007 suggested that then-Vice President Dick Cheney led the country to war in Iraq to profit energy company Halliburton.
Paul has been at times a serious person raising serious questions about serious issues, and, as such, he has won praise from unlikely corners.
He also has sounded at times like a combination of his father and filmmaker Michael Moore, and as such he has earned scorn and contempt from wholly predictable corners.
Paul's bet is that the Republican Party is younger and war-weary, prioritizing privacy and far removed from the party that took down Cleland and Kerry.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was caught rolling his eyes at Paul last week, entered the presidential race Monday, and it has become clear that a major dynamic of the GOP race will resemble a circular firing squad of national security hawks with Paul sitting in a chair in the middle of that circle.
It is possible that 13 years after Cleland's defeat, the Republican Party is more closely attuned to Paul than Graham and the rest of the hawkish field.
But I wouldn't bet on it.