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Was Rand Paul's red meat joke a bit too raw?

By Ashley Killough, CNN
updated 8:28 PM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, is aggressively trying to expand the Republican Party.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, is aggressively trying to expand the Republican Party.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sen. Rand Paul joked the U.S. should trade five Democrats, not Taliban members, in next prisoner swap
  • The partisan joke comes as Paul is actively trying to court Democratic voters
  • Experts say the potential presidential candidate is just trying to figure out what he can get away with
  • Analysts say the joke wasn't that funny, but they doubt it will have a long-term impact

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- More than any other Republican lawmaker, Sen. Rand Paul has aggressively gone after nontraditional GOP voters in the past year, trying to lure Democrats and independents into his party's column as he considers a presidential bid.

So it seemed odd last week when the libertarian-leaning senator from Kentucky made a partisan joke about the prisoner swap that secured U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's release.

"Mr. President, you love to trade people. Why don't we set up a trade? But this time, instead of five Taliban, how about five Democrats," Paul said Friday to cheers at the Texas GOP convention in Fort Worth.

The Obama administration released five Guantanamo detainees in exchange for Bergdahl, who had been held captive for five years and was handed over to American forces at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border on May 31.

To help bring back a U.S. marine currently detained in Mexico, Paul suggested trading "John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, (and) Nancy Pelosi."

"Couldn't we send them to Mexico?"

The audience roared.

As would be expected, Paul's joke ignited a firestorm.

His comment made national headlines, and the Democratic National Committee called his remarks "completely out of line" and uncivilized.

DNC press secretary Michael Czin said the joke showed "how unserious" Paul is on foreign policy and argued he was trying to score cheap shots by riling the base.

And as would be expected, conservative blogs and commentators found it funny--even "hilarious"--and argued critics had no sense of humor.

The following day, Saturday, Paul returned to Kentucky to help open the first state Republican Party office in the urban area of West Louisville, where he reiterated that the GOP has to be a "more diverse party."

It's a theme he has taken on the road this past year, visiting areas unfamiliar to Republicans, such as the University of California Berkeley, a liberal hotbed.

He has also traveled to inner-city Chicago and Detroit, as well as historically black colleges to help spread the Republican message to Democratic-leaning audiences.

Rand Paul: GOP must reconnect with African Americans

And just last month, he told a Kentucky radio station that people are looking for a leader in Washington who carries "the best parts of what Republicans stand for and also some of the good things the Democrats stand for."

So, why make a joke that rips some of the very voters you're trying to attract?

Political experts say Paul is testing out his campaign language before it starts to count in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

"He's really trying to figure out what he can and can't get away with on the stump," said GOP operative Ford O'Connell. "If he can't broaden his appeal in the GOP primary, there is no general election."

Paul is also trying to place daylight between himself and other potential Republican candidates, O'Connell continued, as the GOP still lacks a clear frontrunner for 2016.

Known for his non-interventionist views, Paul has to convince Republican donors and voters that he's strong enough to be commander in chief, O'Connell said.

Rand Paul responds to GOP criticism of his foreign policy views

His joke was the latest in a string of comments last week expressing frustration with the Obama administration over the Bergdahl swap.

On Fox News, Paul said he's not sure the prisoner exchange would have been a good deal, even "if we were trading for a Medal of Honor winner, much less trading for somebody who may well have been a deserter."

While O'Connell argued the dust-up over Paul's Taliban joke at the convention will be nothing more than a "blip" in the long run, it was nevertheless "out of character" for the senator.

"If he continues to do that, it's obvious that he hasn't figured out how to brand himself distinctly from the others," he said.

David Winston, also a GOP strategist, argued Paul would probably "like to have that one back."

"Here he is trying to do outreach, then he delivers a line like this. Clearly this statement seems to be at odds with the general direction he's going," Winston said. "The remark was just unacceptable."

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Talking to reporters in Texas after his speech, Paul said his comment was simply a joke.

"Except for Nancy Pelosi, I was serious about her," he added, tongue fully planted in cheek.

"It's humor, and I hope there's room for humor," he continued after being asked about the comment again. "I thought it was funny. It was meant to be humorous."

Winston, however, stressed that Paul would be better off staying on message, not offering "some trite, strange comment."

"I think up to this point in many ways he has engaged voters on a substance level -- that's why this particular statement was so dissonant," he said.

Others say he was just serving up some red meat in the Lone Star State.

Jordan Powell, a Republican consultant in Texas, said Paul's comment was in tune with the rabble-rousing rhetoric so often heard at state conventions held by either party.

"It was a line designed for partisans, to be responded to by partisans," Powell said. "That quote happened in a vacuum to the outside world, but it didn't happen in a vacuum to those who were there at the convention and listening to other speeches."

Rand Paul criticizes the Clintons, urges GOP to engage minorities

Six analysts agreed that Paul's comment is unlikely to have a long-term effect if he decides to run for president. It's still early, they say, and almost all candidates make controversial statements along the way.

"I can't imagine that this will have an impact on Rand Paul's political career, one way or another," said Republican strategist John Feehery, adding the joke wasn't all that funny. "When you are serving red meat to a crowd, sometimes it is served very raw. This was pretty raw."

Sometimes jokes can hurt a person politically if the comments mirror a deep-seated public fear about that individual, said presidential historian Doug Wead.

As an example, Wead cited Sen. John McCain's 2007 joke where the then-presidential candidate parodied a Beach Boys song and called for the bombing of Iran.

He also referenced Karl Rove's 2012 comment in which the GOP strategist joked about murdering then-Rep. Todd Akin, whose disastrous comments about rape ultimately cost him the Senate race in Missouri.

But Wead argued Paul's outreach efforts and his work with Democrats on legislation -- such as measures aimed to limit the National Security Agency's domestic reach -- will outweigh any partisan jokes like the one he made last week.

"If the debate centers around bipartisanship and who has the most appeal from both sides, then let the debate begin," Wead said. "Rand wins."

"It is early, and he has to reassure his Republican base before he starts tapping the wide appeal he has among youth and others across the partisan divide," he added. "The fact that liberals jumped on this reveals their concern about that appeal."

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