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New leader of the GOP: Rand Paul

By Mo Elleithee, Special to CNN
updated 9:50 PM EST, Fri March 8, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mo Elleithee says the week highlighted split in the GOP
  • He says Rand Paul is getting his message out better than Rubio, Ryan, Cantor
  • For GOP, danger is that he Paul could push 2016 further to the right, he says
  • Elleithee: Paul combined old tool of filibuster with new media to make his point

Editor's note: Mo Elleithee was senior spokesman and traveling press secretary for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in 2008 and has worked for or advised other Democratic candidates and committees. He is a founding partner of two political consulting firms and has served on the faculty of Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute since 2011.

(CNN) -- A few weeks ago, Time Magazine ran its now-famous cover: "The Republican Savior: How Marco Rubio became the new voice of the GOP."

Only time will tell if the junior senator from Florida lives up to that billing, and it's entirely possible that Time will be proven wrong in the coming months and years.

But there's one cover that the magazine could run now and be entirely confident in: "The Republican Messenger: How Rand Paul became the real voice of the GOP."

Mo Elleithee
Mo Elleithee

That's right. At least for the time being, tea party darling Sen. Rand Paul is the effective leader of the Republican Party. And that's a pretty big deal.

The GOP's shellacking in 2012 has thrust a new generation of Republicans -- including leaders like Rubio, Rep. Paul Ryan, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Govs. Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie -- into the spotlight. But it's Paul who has become the clearest voice of the new guard in the Republican Party. And he is effectively driving the entire GOP message right now.

Think about it. No one else in the GOP has been able to step into a real leadership position, no matter how hard they try. Paul Ryan? He's back in the halls of Congress trying to figure out how to repackage his failed fiscal approach. John Boehner and Eric Cantor? Congressional Republicans have an approval rating in the low teens.

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John McCain and Lindsey Graham? Each day they seem less like elder statesmen and more like Statler and Waldorf from the "Muppet Show." Chris Christie? He may be the nation's most popular governor, but conservative groups find Sarah Palin and Donald Trump more compelling these days. Bob McDonnell? He's already got a conservative SuperPAC running ads against him in Iowa! Jeb Bush? His reentry to the national political dialogue this week was clumsy at best.

Paul is the only guy who appears able at this point to step into the GOP leadership void. There are two reasons why.

First, Paul has proven that he has the ability to punch his message through in a way that no one else in the Republican Party can.

He's clear. Whether or not you agree with him (and I rarely do), you know where he stands. He articulates his message more clearly than most people in Washington.

He's principled. He's more ideologically consistent than many people in Washington (though admittedly, that's not the highest of bars these days). He's willing to take on leaders of both parties to make a point.

While many senators in his party have held up nominations for petty political reasons, Paul held up John Brennan's nomination over a principled stand that attracted attention from both progressives and conservatives. And as several commentators said after the fact, it's easy to believe that he would have done the same under a Republican president.

Paul's also proven to be a master of both old and new media. Just look at this week. He had the entire traditional political press corps and mainstream media focused on him like a laser beam by utilizing one of the most old school tools available to a senator -- the filibuster. Yet he made it feel new.

For weeks, the press had been reporting on the use of silent filibusters to hold up nominations and on the attempts at filibuster reform. So Paul, by forsaking a tool that so many of his colleagues seem to love, and understanding how to capitalize on an existing media narrative, came across looking courageous and principled and dominated the news cycle for 24 hours. But what made the move truly genius, was that he launched it through Twitter. And as fellow tea party Sen. Ted Cruz stated later on the Senate floor, the twitterverse blew up -- further driving the message in both old and new media.

Compare that to Marco Rubio's response to the State of the Union Address. For all of the hype that led up to his speech, what will people truly remember? That he stopped in the middle to take a drink of water, and that he gave a version in Spanish. That's pretty much it. In the breathless rush to rebrand the GOP by party leaders, that second point was heralded as a major success.

But as to the ability to punch through an actual message, Rand Paul is running circles around everyone else.

The second reason why Paul has become the party's most effective messenger is that everyone across the entire ideological spectrum -- from John McCain, Rubio and The Wall Street Journal to Majority Leader Harry Reid and Attorney General Eric Holder -- is responding to him.

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz rushed to floor to bask in the glory of Paul's "filiblizzard." Attorney General Holder sent him a letter clarifying the administration's position on drones. Reid and Minority Leader McConnell took to the Senate floor to applaud Paul's conviction (and bladder control).

It wasn't all love, however. Fellow Republican Sens. McCain and Graham took to the floor to blast him for his position. The problem is that they are decidedly old guard. The new faces in the party fell all over themselves to "#standwithrand."

Rand Paul has people listening and responding to him. He's dictating the conversation. And when you look at the ineptitude of the rest of the Republican message machine, it's pretty clear that he is one of the few people in his party that know how to do that.

Van Jones: Rand Paul, a civil liberties hero and civil rights villain

Now, that doesn't mean Paul doesn't have serious problems. On most issues, he is seriously outside of the mainstream. He often gets his facts dangerously wrong -- like when he falsely argued that the number of government employees grew under President Obama, or when he alleged that the U.S. was smuggling weapons out of Libya to Turkey, without any proof.

And at a time when most Americans are starving for leaders willing to cross party lines and find common ground, he is about as far from compromise as you can get.

It's that last point that may be why Paul is so dangerous to the Republican Party moving forward. Paul said this week that he is seriously considering a run for President in 2016. The more he steps in to fill the GOP's gaping leadership vacuum, the more others -- and particularly other potential 2016 presidential candidates -- will chase him.

That means Republican leaders run the risk of seeming even more strident, more intolerant, more uncompromising, and more outside the mainstream than they did in 2012. Those, like Christie, that buck this trend run the risk of being ostracized by the conservative grassroots -- something that not a lot of potential Republican 2016ers have shown much interest in doing.

Even if Paul doesn't become the nominee, he has the potential to shape the GOP field in a way that few others can at this point. In short, for now, it's Rand Paul's party. And it seems like so many other Republicans are simply trying to figure out how to live in it.

(Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the number of federal employees had not grown under President Obama; in fact, the total number of government employees at all levels has not grown since he took office.)

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mo Elleithee.

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