Rand Paul’s mainstream dreams

If the senator sticks to his libertarian principles, he will end up like his dad

March 20, 2014 7:30AM ET
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on March 7.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Sen. Rand Paul is looking like a prescient and savvy politician these days, the embodiment of public wariness about government spying and intervention in messy faraway conflicts. It is a lucky convergence for a libertarian whose overriding philosophy — a sharply limited government role in almost all areas of life — happens to jibe with popular sentiment on those particular issues.

So far it is all gain and no pain for the Kentucky Republican as he heads into a near-certain 2016 presidential campaign. Some analysts are even calling Paul the early front-runner for the Republican nomination. Yet as attention shifts to his views on domestic policy, he will have to make some tough decisions: move away from positions that would alienate moderates, independents and traditional Republicans, or stay true to his principles and end up like his father, Ron Paul — a niche candidate who energized many but never won the White House, the GOP nomination or even a single 2012 primary.

Rand Paul portrays himself as a man of iron conviction when it comes to executive power. Barack Obama used to be a civil libertarian, he told me in August, but he scrapped that identity when he became president. “I think there’s a disease,” Paul said. Or, I asked, perhaps a fear that Americans might be attacked? “I think all of us have that,” he said. “Don’t you want to do everything that you can to protect the country? Why should you have to change if you become president? I think people should still be rational. This disease process is one of accumulating power.”

In Paul’s view, the nation can be kept safe without mass surveillance. He says a President Paul would not feel straitjacketed by such limits and would not evolve the way Obama has, because, according to him, the limits reflect “everything that I stand for.” Still, we cannot know if he would keep that commitment unless he actually manages to become commander in chief, with the nation’s safety in his hands.

Will Paul’s certainty and resolve extend to domestic policy? Here his philosophy is perhaps epitomized by his determination to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the budget he released last year. An ophthalmologist by trade, he does not believe health care is a right and has said a universal right to care would enslave doctors. His 2013 budget would have axed Obamacare and the departments of Commerce, Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development. It turned several entitlement programs into capped grants and added private options to Medicare and Social Security. Paul also proposed replacing the tax code with a 17 percent flat tax and ending taxes on savings, dividends and capital gains.

Asked what the role of government should be, his answer to me last summer was short: prevent violence, enforce contracts, prevent fraud. He did not mention the military then, but now he is touting his belief in a strong defense and claiming Ronald Reagan’s mantle for himself.

Paul’s blueprint for a minimalist government is the highest hurdle he faces in widening his appeal beyond libertarians and noninterventionist conservatives. Though he has tea party support, the largest voting bloc in GOP primaries is “somewhat conservative” voters who favor even-keeled candidates “who do not espouse radical change,” Henry Olsen writes in The National Interest. Democrats are even less likely to be able to stomach Paul’s worldview, which Neera Tanden, the president of the liberal Center for American Progress, characterized to me as “end government as we know it.” 

I believe what you do on your cellphone is none of their damn business.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

The prospect of Paul appointees to the Supreme Court — anti-abortion, pro-gun and firm advocates of sharply limited government — is probably enough to send progressives fleeing, much as some might appreciate the surveillance rulings of a Paul court. And he is continually giving them new reasons to turn away; among the latest are his attacks on Obama’s surgeon-general nominee as a threat to gun rights and his opinion that “sexual predator” Bill Clinton is inappropriate company for Democrats to keep.

More often these days, however, Paul is harnessing his mastery of public relations and grassroots organizing to showcase broadly attractive ideas and causes — those he believes will draw the young people and minorities the GOP needs to win the White House. Last month alone, he sued the National Security Agency, campaigned to restore voting rights to felons, visited historically black Simmons College in Louisville, Ky., to mark its accreditation, met with Attorney General Eric Holder about softening mandatory minimum drug sentences and tweeted that Ted Nugent owes Obama an apology (Nugent had called the president a “subhuman mongrel”). In December, Paul traveled to Detroit to push for “economic freedom zones” in which taxes and regulations would be slashed. He believes such efforts would revive cities like Detroit, and the NAACP has expressed interest in the idea.

This month Paul is making headlines again as a defender of liberty. He electrified the Conservative Political Action Conference — with lines like “I believe what you do on your cellphone is none of their damn business” — and handily won the CPAC presidential straw poll with 31 percent of 2,459 votes. Neither the win nor the rapturous reception was surprising, given grassroots spadework that drew to the conference a Young Americans for Liberty contingent of nearly 500 campus activists. On Wednesday, in a venue that guaranteed attention would be paid, Paul discussed civil liberties before an enthusiastic crowd at the University of California, Berkeley, the birthplace of the seminal free-speech movement in the 1960s. "There are not too many people who can get a standing ovation at CPAC and a standing ovation at Berkeley," said former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, now a U.C. Berkeley professor.

Spring is budget season, and how Paul handles that will be telling. He may choose not to release his own budget proposal this year. If he does, will it be a document only an archconservative or libertarian could love, as was the case with last year’s budget? Or will it be more responsive to the political realities of a presidential bid, taking into account national attitudes and preferences for pragmatism over ideology? Polls show that a majority of Americans agree with him that the government is too big, but they also suggest voter resistance to cuts in social programs and little appetite to repeal the Affordable Care Act. A new Paul budget might well include economic freedom zones, but that remedy is consistent with his calls for lower taxes and less regulation. And while the proposal does show that Paul is grappling with an issue not always topmost on the GOP agenda, it does not demonstrate that he is willing to move beyond his fixed ideas and compromise on policy.

There is political value in Paul’s unconventional outreach if it allows him to win a hearing from political moderates and independents who might otherwise consider him outside the mainstream. But it will all be in vain if he continues to push for a government shrunk to a size and a role that most Americans would not recognize, much less want.

Jill Lawrence, the author of the Brookings Institution’s Profiles in Negotiation series, is a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor and a member of USA Today’s board of contributors.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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