Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul's tightrope walk on the issue of illegal immigration highlights the precarious position that the party is in as it tries to attract more voters, but ultimately it is going to take rejection of some of the more extremist views for the GOP to gain ground.
In recent weeks, more Republicans have come out in support of various immigration reform proposals, as well as more support for gay marriage and women's issues. These have all been identified by the party as areas where Republicans need to consider softening their hard-line stands as they work to change their current image of the party of old white guys who support the rich at the expense of the poor.
Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, a vocal opponent to gay marriage, was the latest high profile member of the GOP to change his view. Paul said that the government shouldn't stand in the way of contracts between adults, and suggested the word marriage be removed from the tax code.
Paul also projected a softer image on immigration this week in a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. In talking about illegal immigrants, he said, "Prudence, compassion and thrift all point us toward the same goal: bringing these workers out of the shadows and into becoming and being taxpaying members of society."
That same call for compassion doomed Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the GOP primaries. And in a nod to the extremes Paul has continued to try and redefine his remarks so as not to enrage the extremes within the GOP, saying he never meant to imply a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Paul is trying to have it both ways, appeasing the party's extreme base while trying to move forward in ways that most Republicans think the party should be going. Even the party's own analysis following its November losses indicated that changes were needed if the party was to remain relevant. Most people, especially younger Americans, think the party is out of step with their beliefs on gay marriage; and most minorities do not think that the party supports them either.
Republican candidates in the race for president tried to walk this same fine line where they tried to appeal to the masses while pandering to the extremes in their party. The results of that effort speak for themselves.
Moving forward, the GOP must decide that it is truly a big tent party and embrace some of the changes that have been recommended. Prospective leaders can no longer afford to try and balance on the fence, paying lip service to the growing segments of the population that it has alienated while trying to appease a shrinking base of extremists.