Rand Paul Jumps In - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Rand Paul Jumps In

Although it is not named for the hero of Ayn Rand’s influential novel Atlas Shrugged, Louisville’s Galt House Hotel was an appropriate place for Kentucky Senator Rand Paul to make official his candidacy to be the next president of the United States.

On Tuesday, in front of a crowd cheering “President Paul! President Paul!” the ophthalmologist turned politician made a strong case for a libertarian brand of Republicanism in a dynamic, well-delivered speech.

“We’ve come to take our country back!” began the senator, attacking special interests and “the Washington machine that invades every nook and cranny of our lives.” Paul reminded the throng that nobody thought he could win his 2010 U.S. Senate primary (against clear frontrunner Secretary of State Trey Grayson who had the support of Sen. Mitch McConnell), a useful point in a crowded Republican field, and then drew a contrast with members of Congress who “become part of the Washington machine… [but] that’s not who I am.” (That’s not who Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush or Scott Walker are either, but let’s not quibble.)

Humanizing a candidate being a key part of any campaign, Rand Paul described the joy he receives from restoring the vision of poor people in Guatemala (which he’s done repeatedly over the past fifteen years), including of a man and wife who literally hadn’t seen each other in seven years. He told a story that his fans have heard before about how he “became the eyes” for his grandmother so they could continue collecting coins together, which inspired his choice of medical specialty. His is a metaphor of selflessly getting important things done rather than just talking about it.

Running as an anti-establishment outsider, Rand Paul has a needle to thread in trying to win the Republican nomination. He got cheers for accurately stating that “both parties and the entire political system are to blame” for Americans’ fear of a declining future for our children and grandchildren.

He continued the bipartisan attack: “Big government and debt doubled under a Republican administration, and it’s now tripling under Barack Obama’s watch. President Obama is now on course to add more debt than all previous presidents combined.… This vast accumulation of debt threatens not just our economy but our security.”

Some pundits wonder whether an occasionally anti-Republican Republican will be forced into a more conventional primary campaign. Sen. Paul dispatched that theory in short order: “In order to restore America, one thing is for certain, though: we cannot, we must not dilute our message or give up on our principles.”

Though it remains to be seen whether he will live by these words, this approach promises to make an already interesting Republican field that much more so with multiple candidates offering more than lip service to the importance of adhering to the Constitution and to freedom as an end in itself and — something few Republicans other than Paul Ryan seem able to explain — as the best way to help the poor.

Exhorting supporters to go “boldly forth under the banner of liberty, that clutches the Constitution in one hand and the Bill of Rights in the other,” Paul warned against the GOP nominating a candidate who is little more than a “Democrat-lite,” an obvious jab at former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

In the first specific policy prescription in his speech, Senator Paul called for a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution, followed moments later by supporting congressional term limits. They both sound good to me.

Again castigating Republicans and Democrats (you see the trend here, right?), Paul sounded a populist note: “Under the watch of both parties, the poor seem to get poorer and the rich get richer. Trillion-dollar government stimulus packages have only widened the income gap. Politically connected cronies get taxpayer dollars by the hundreds of millions and poor families across America continue to suffer.”

The senator proposed a plan for “economic freedom zones to allow impoverished areas like Detroit, west Louisville, eastern Kentucky to prosper by leaving more money in the pockets of the people who live there.” He also proposed to “dramatically lower the tax on American companies that wish to bring their profits home,” something that President Obama is unlikely to support.

One of Senator Paul’s trademarks is working with liberal Democrats on issues of importance to blacks and Hispanics, including sentencing reform and changes to marijuana laws which damage non-violent offenders’ chances of successfully participating in civil society. The latter issue, while not helpful in GOP primaries, would be an asset in a general election given the recent Quinnipiac poll showing that in three key swing states (Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania), the legal use of marijuana is more popular than any presidential candidate.

Rand Paul is the Republican most likely to talk about urban issues in language that non-conservatives can relate to, and he did so on Tuesday: 

Liberal policies have failed our inner cities. Let’s just get the facts straight.… Our schools are not equal and the poverty gap continues to widen. Martin Luther King spoke of two Americas.… In one America, people experience the opportunity of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In the other America, people experience a daily ugliness that dashes hope and leaves only the fatigue of despair.… My trips to Detroit, to Appalachia, to Chicago have revealed what I call an undercurrent of unease. It’s time for a new way, a way predicated on justice, opportunity, and freedom!… Those of us who have enjoyed the American Dream must break down the wall that separates us from the other America.

Paul knows that his greatest weakness within the Republican base is foreign policy, so he laid down markers intended to assuage concerns about his non-interventionist bent:

The enemy is radical Islam. You can’t get around it. And not only will I name the enemy, I will do whatever it takes to defend America from these haters of mankind. We need a national defense robust enough to defend against all attack, modern enough to deter all enemies, and nimble enough to defend our vital interests. But we also need a foreign policy that protects American interests and encourages stability, not chaos.

At home conservatives understand that government is the problem, not the solution. Conservatives should not succumb, though, to the notion that a government inept at home will somehow succeed in building nations abroad. I envision an American with a national defense unparalleled, undefeatable and unencumbered by overseas nation-building. I envision a national defense that promotes, as Reagan put it, “peace through strength.”

Referencing American’s most pressing foreign policy challenge — and again invoking the man who defeated the Soviet Union — Sen. Paul said:

I believe in applying Reagan’s approach to foreign policy to the Iran issue: successful negotiations with untrustworthy adversaries are only achieved through a position of strength. We brought Iran to the table through sanctions that I voted for. Now we must stay strong. That’s why I cosponsored legislation that ensures that any deal between the US and Iran must be approved by Congress…. I will oppose any deal that does not end Iran’s nuclear ambitions and have strong verification measures.… Everyone needs to realize that negotiations are not inherently bad, that “trust but verify” is required in any negotiation, but that our goal always should be and always is peace, not war.

One of Rand Paul’s pet peeves remains American money going to foreign governments: “In angers me to see mobs yelling ‘death to America’ in countries that receive millions of dollars in our foreign aid.” Making that distinction presumably is the senator’s way, acceding to political reality, of being less strident than he has been about cutting aid to Israel as aggressively as to other recipients.

And perhaps Rand Paul’s most famous issue area, and one tailor-made to appeal to voters under the age of 40, electronic privacy: 

Warrantless searches of America’s phones and computer records are un-American and a threat to our civil liberties. I say that your phone records are yours. I say that the phone records of law-abiding citizens are none of [the intelligence services’] damn business! The president created this vast dragnet by executive order. And as president on day one I will immediately end this unconstitutional surveillance.… I will not compromise your liberty for a false sense of security. Not now, not ever.

You can imagine the cheers at the Galt House for those lines, but the senator will still have to convince skeptics that the sense of security is in fact false. Defending Edward Snowden, recently described by John Oliver as “the most famous hero and/or traitor in recent American history,” is about to become a much more difficult task for Rand Paul.

Senator Paul ended his address saying that “with God’s help and with the help of liberty lovers everywhere, I am putting myself forward as a candidate for president of the United States of America.” The enthusiastic crowd returned to chants of “President Paul! President Paul!”

Rand Paul’s greatest strength and greatest weakness can be summarized in a word: different.

His liberty-oriented perspective, focus on urban issues, and foreign policy minimalism (though less minimalist after Tuesday’s speech) will, he believes, show him as a truly different candidate, simultaneously endearing him to many young voters and to a modest cohort of minority voters — a modest cohort being all that is necessary to defeat a Democrat in the general election.

However, these are typically not the people who decide the presidential election and are rarely determinative in Republican primaries — which is why other candidates spend little time courting them.

While the senator’s father, three-time presidential candidate Dr. Ron Paul, won several straw polls and gathered a handful of delegates (though no state primary victories) during the 2012 Republican nomination process, his campaign was little more than a side show of fervent supporters caricatured by the mainstream media and the Republican establishment as — to borrow a term from John McCain (who used it to describe Rand Paul) — wacko birds. (On Tuesday, as Rand Paul was announcing his candidacy for president, McCain said he will seek a sixth term in the United States Senate.)

The younger Paul will need to be perceived as a more serious candidate to have a chance of success. He will achieve at least that perception, in part because he comes across as less of a crank than his father and will not make it as easy to be pigeonholed as a man whose followers’ favorite choice of millinery material involves tin foil.

Senator Paul actually made his candidacy official on his website a few hours before speaking in Louisville, writing that “I am running for president to return our country to the principles of liberty and limited government.”

While his sincerity about such a basic proposition may be truer than many Republicans who parrot similar words, it is far from clear that the American public values — or even understands — what liberty and limited government even mean anymore, and therefore whether branding himself as the most pro-liberty candidate will attract enough votes or money to keep his candidacy viable.

In Senator Paul’s favor is the fact that his father was a prodigious fundraiser. The generosity and enthusiasm of the senior Paul’s supporters — whom Rand Paul hopes to immediately bring into his fold — allowed him to outperform what a superficial analysis of his most recent candidacy would have predicted.

As if to re-emphasize his difference from other Republicans and his desire to appeal to millennials, Senator Paul has launched an online store on which you can buy anything from a U.S. Constitution iPhone case ($20) to Rand Paul Beats Headphone Skins (if you’re over 45, you probably have no idea what that means) to t-shirts and socks to “Stand with Rand” car floor mats ($70) to a bound U.S. Constitution autographed by the candidate (a bargain at $1,000).

But selling swag by showing that you understand young adults’ consumerism won’t help assuage older Americans — i.e., those who are more likely to vote in November 2016 — that Rand Paul’s biggest difference from other Republicans, his views on international affairs and national security, do not disqualify him from higher office.

Senator Paul’s non-interventionist (or, as critics term it, isolationist) foreign policy positions earn accolades from libertarians and a handful of liberals. But, while the senator is more reasonable than his father and less likely to blame America for, for example, Muslims behaving badly, his critics are aggressive and, among the conservative punditry, numerous.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), parroting his puppet-master John McCain (R-AZ), recently suggested that the only person who would have negotiated a worse deal with Iran than Barack Obama is Rand Paul. It was a ridiculous and insulting charge made by a man who is not smart enough to know that his own presidential aspirations are stillborn.

Whether Tuesday’s speech convinced more rational foreign policy hawks that Senator Paul may yet be acceptable is unclear, but the “Bomb, bomb Iran” crowd will not stop with this particular line of attack against him.

Paul remains far from Lindsey McCain (or is it John McGraham?) in his willingness to go to war, but he is, at least for now, also sufficiently far from his father’s unrealistic “fortress America” mentality. He is also doing well to avoid Ron Paul’s reprehensible penchant for blaming America first and the elder Paul’s association with “9/11 Truthers.” And he has abandoned his 2007 claim that there is “evidence that Iran is not a threat” — which doesn’t mean he won’t hear that misjudgment replayed repeatedly in coming months in campaign commercials by his opponents.

It cannot be overstated: concern about Rand Paul’s commitment to a sufficiently robust national defense is the biggest worry about him among the conservative base of the GOP. The increasing dominance of national security and terrorism-related issues in the news and the national political debate explains the senator’s spending so much time explaining his views and the subtle but unmistakable shift in those views toward more conventional Republican positions.

While I welcome these modest adjustments in the senator’s policy preferences, it’s only a matter of time before a clever opponent uses Rand Paul flip-flops to tar him as insincere. (They’re not as good a visual aid as a windsurfer, but they’re too easy to pass up.)

As someone in my 40s, standing between the older neocons and the younger millennials, I find Rand Paul a fascinating and occasionally inspiring candidate. His willingness and ability to give a speech in front of a conservative audience and then at Cal Berkeley — and to get standing ovations in both places — reminds me of the perhaps naïve hope so many Americans had following the elections of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama of a country working toward a modicum of unity and a toning down of hyperpartisan rhetoric.

Instead, particularly under the current president who describes political opponents as “enemies,” Republicans and Democrats are further apart than ever, not just in policy terms but in their ability to trust that an honest conversation is even possible with the other side.

Senator Paul is one of the few trying to bridge those gaps. He brings welcome attention and a fresh perspective to issues Republicans rarely think about and even more rarely speak about. His ability and willingness to change the conversation makes him a valuable addition to the race.

Whether or not Rand Paul becomes the Republican nominee — and sadly I think it’s too steep a hill for such a libertarian candidate to climb in 2016 — I hope that he encourages Americans to expect more and better of our politicians than we’ve seen in recent years.

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