By Reid Smith
Every “epoch” begins with a specific moment—the origin point of that particular era. The Defenestration of Prague triggered the 30 Years War. Queen Victoria assumed the throne. Chuck Berry plugged in.
America experienced just such a moment last March, when Rand Paul took the Senate floor to object to our high-flying executive. He spoke for nearly 13 hours, condemning the dangerous ambiguity of an “unlimited imperial presidency.” Since Congress passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force in the immediate wake of 9/11, the executive had come unchained. A serious debate was needed, Paul argued, about “whether that use or authorization of force is open-ended, forever.”
As Ross Douthat noted at the time, Paul “exploited partisan incentives to bring his fellow Republicans around to his ideas, deliberately picking battles—from the Libya intervention to drone warfare—where a more restrained foreign policy vision doubles as a critique of the Obama White House.” Old guard establishment types like John Cornyn and Mitch McConnell decided to #standwithrand, while the National Republican Senatorial Committee raised funds using the slogan. Meanwhile, Paul won unlikely support from hard-core liberals like Code Pink and Van Jones—not to mention lefty commentators like Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow.
Paul accomplished something nearly unheard of in modern American politics: He completely reoriented public opinion in a matter of hours. Consensus doesn’t twist in the wind. The public sphere usually fluctuates as the result of creeping changes in mood and perspective. Not in this case. A Washington Post poll from February 2012 found that nearly 80 percent of Americans approved of the administration’s use of drones—including the killing of a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki. Days after Paul’s filibuster, Gallup reported that support for UAV airstrikes against U.S. citizens, even abroad, had plummeted across the board.
But think about it this way: Rand Paul’s filibuster wasn’t really about drones. He objected to unchecked executive authority and chronic intrusions on our rights and liberties. And his condemnation of federal overreach couldn’t have come at a better time. Since then, a perfect storm of political scandal has consumed the White House. IRS inquisitions exposed shocking federal biases. Outrage at Edward Snowden’s disclosure of NSA snooping damaged the administration’s credibility at home. Eavesdropping alienated allies abroad. President Obama won scant support for therapeutic strikes in Syria, despite backing from bipartisan congressional leadership. To top things off, the president’s signature legislation spun into a death spiral. Obamacare will prove costly to consumers and Democrats alike. Paul’s filibuster shook the foundations of the left-right political binary, and heralded opposition to top-down control of our lives and liberty.
Historically, the biggest knock against Paul is that he’s a “kook” like his father. Such criticism is shallow. The son has already proven savvier and less cantankerous than his dad. Sure, he echoes prescient criticism of big government, distortions and artificialities created by market tampering, and the hazards of foreign intervention. But by communicating his political platform to new and diverse constituencies, he’s shaping a new normal. Whether we’re talking about Obamacare, foreign policy, civil liberties, NSA snooping, or the cost of government that affords “all of the above,” he’s on the right side of popular opinion—partly because he’s helped shape it. The numbers don’t lie. In December, Pew released a poll that showed for the first time in in recorded history, more than half of all Americans agree that the U.S. should “mind it’s own business” abroad. Along those lines, 80 percent agreed with the statement “We should not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems, and building up our strength and prosperity here at home.” This is a clear victory for Paul’s notion of strategic restraint.
On the sweeping surveillance state: A poll conducted by the Anzalone Liszt Grove Research firm recently found 59 percent of Americans opposed continuance of the NSA’s widespread data collection. More importantly, 57 percent of those surveyed report they have “not much” confidence in the government’s ability to prevent further abuse of privacy. Further revelations have only cemented public unease. For his part, Paul is a prolific champion of our abused Fourth Amendment.
When it comes to Obamacare, recent polling confirms the obvious. The president’s signature legislation has been crippled by programmatic maladies and deliberate dishonesty. Millions have lost their insurance—and tens of millions more will suffer the same fate when group policies come under scrutiny and standardization. While the anti-Obamacare fight is, probably, the one issue every Republican can agree upon, Paul’s resistance is notable for one reason. His dissent is founded on the same principles that inform his broader political priorities.
This adds up to a popular reorientation against federal overreach. Gallup recently reported that 72 percent of Americans now believe “big government is a greater threat to the U.S. in the future than is big business or big labor.” That’s a record high in the nearly 50-year history of the question. Such skepticism of “big government” is absolutely inseparable from IRS inquisition, sweeping surveillance, continual war, and Obamacare’s broken promises. Opposition to such injustice is a worthy presidential platform.
I’d remind our readers of an important trend in conservative politics. The establishment claims it is simply supportive of the most conservative candidates who can win. Meanwhile, it enthusiastically protects the incumbent class from the conservative grassroots. Recall, the establishment backed Bob Bennett over Mike Lee, Charlie Christ over Marco Rubio, David Dewhurst over Ted Cruz, and so on. They also backed Trey Grayson over Rand Paul, because they said Paul wasn’t electable. Remember how that worked out? Paul crushed his establishment-endorsed opponent by 23 points, then steamrolled Jack Conway in the general. So much for “electability.”
Paul is viable for the same reason other principled conservatives now lead the party. The GOP competes when it produces fresh ideas and compelling candidates. Business as usual won’t cut it when it comes to pulling this country back from the brink. It’s time for generational change. Epochal? Absolutely.
Rand Paul has established himself as a political entrepreneur who’s capable of doing just that. Small wonder a growing number of Americans believe he’s capable of leading not only his party, but this nation.
By Jamie Weinstein
Rand Paul is many things: a doctor, a senator, a son, and a father. But one thing he is unlikely to be is the 2016 Republican nominee. Not everyone agrees. There is a narrative that the Republican Party is moving inexorably in Paul’s “libertarian” direction. Opposition to NSA surveillance, non-interventionism, and drug policy reform will make 2016 Rand Paul’s year—or so we are told. This narrative isn’t entirely false, but it is vastly overblown. Paul is an important voice in the Republican Party, but for many reasons—ideology, temperment, personality—he is an unlikely GOP nominee.
One case study Paul’s backers bring up is Syria. Many in the media were shocked when it became clear that few Republicans supported military action against the Assad regime when President Obama brought the issue to Congress last September. Wasn’t this the hawkish party that supported the Iraq war? Could it be that Rand Paul had turned the GOP into a party of non-interventionists? “The Syria debate marked the first time since House Republicans tried to keep America out of the Kosovo conflict in 1999 that a libertarian approach to foreign policy seriously challenged the GOP’s old-guard caucus of hawks,” Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins declared in a September article titled “Rand Paul on a Warpath.”
But this is a misreading of what actually occurred. While it is true some in the Republican leadership supported a military response, most Republicans, like most Americans, were skeptical of those on whose behalf the United States would have been intervening. Yes, the Assad regime is monstrous, but the opposition consists overwhelmingly of Islamists, the strongest elements of which are affiliated with al-Qaeda. Even John Bolton, who no one has ever confused for a Rand Paul-style non-interventionist, opposed military intervention in Syria.
A true test of whether the GOP has become more Paulian in its foreign policy outlook is Iran—and polling suggests it hasn’t. A March 2013 Pew poll, for instance, revealed that 80 percent of Republicans would favor striking Iran militarily if it is necessary to stop the Islamic Republic from obtaining nuclear weapons. This doesn’t mean the GOP hasn’t learned lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. It just means that the narrative is far more complicated than it might first seem.
The truth is, despite two major foreign policy speeches, it is hard to pinpoint what exactly a Paul administration foreign policy would look like. He speaks in vague terms about using force only when it is in America’s interest—a position to which almost no one would object. He quotes a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, saying debt is America’s greatest national security threat in order to make the case for paring back our defense budget—even though Paul surely knows that our long-term budgetary problems are almost entirely related to America’s unsustainable entitlement programs.
It’s hard not to get the impression that Paul is engaged in some sort of sleight of hand. Could it be that Paul knows that his foreign policy outlook, like his father’s, is so out-of-step with conservatives and the Republican Party that he has to hide his true views behind a wall of rhetorical opaqueness and deception? I suspect so. In fact, that’s exactly what a close former staffer of Paul’s suggested last year when the senator took a hawkish stance on defending Israel. The staffer, Jack Hunter, told the Washington Free Beacon that Paul was simply making a “little rhetorical concession” and “just play[ing] the game.”
In short, whatever one can say about his domestic agenda, when Paul is finally pressed to lay out his foreign policy vision in clear specifics rather than generalities—Precisely how many overseas bases would he dismantle? Exactly how much does he think the defense budget should be cut? In what ways would he pare back America’s role in the world?—it will almost certainly be found wanting, even disqualifying, by most Republican voters.
There is also the issue of Paul’s baggage. Fair or unfair, you can already see the ad that will be aired against him in a presidential race. It will draw a line from his father’s bigoted newsletters to Rand Paul’s philosophical problems with part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to his hiring of the aforementioned Hunter, a former radio shock jock who wore a Confederate flag mask and celebrated in writing the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Paul may not have a bigoted bone in his body, but taken together, the combination of data points could prove toxic.
And what of his father? Generally, a candidate’s parents should be off limits, but without the movement Ron Paul started, Rand would most likely not be a senator and a presidential contender. Ron is more than just Rand’s father—he is the Mr. Miyagi to his Karate Kid. Since leaving office, the elder Paul has given a speech to a conference of Holocaust-deniers and appointed radical fringe figures, including at least one 9/11 truther, to the academic board of his policy institute. Rand won’t be able to use his father to attract support while simultaneously refusing to answer questions that pertain to Ron’s views and troubling associations.
Finally, there is Rand Paul’s temperament. When Buzzfeed revealed late last year that some of Paul’s speeches and books contained plagiarized passages, the senator responded like a 13-year-old. “It’s also what people hate about politics, and it’s why, frankly, members of my family are not too interested in politics, period, or wanting me to do more of this,” he told the New York Times, blaming the “haters” for harping on the issue. “To tell you the truth,” he said, “people can think what they want, I can go back to being a doctor anytime, if they’re tired of me. I’ll go back to being a doctor, and I’ll be perfectly content.” If legitimate questions about plagiarism caused Paul to flip out, how will he respond during the heat of a presidential campaign when the spotlight is much more intense and he is pressed to answer difficult questions like those raised here?
I do not deny that Paul is an important voice in the Senate and the GOP. At times, he forces the party to re-evaluate or strengthen positions that some Republican policymakers uncritically support. He is even a trailblazer within the GOP on issues like drug policy. But Rand won’t be the Republican presidential standard bearer in 2016—nor should he be if the GOP wants to take back the White House.