“Libertarian-leaning” Republican is in style these days. Much to the chagrin of hard-line Libertarians who are, quite frankly, starting to sound like hipsters these days (I was against drone strikes before it was cool), the Junior Senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul, has taken the libertarian mantle as the 2016 race for the White House heats up.
Unless you’ve been hiding under some non-political rock for the last several years, you’ve heard of Rand Paul before. He’s the son of former Texas Congressman Ron Paul. The elder Paul, who ran for President in 1988, 2008, and 2012 was the standard-bearer for non-traditional political views. Supporters of Ron Paul, who is also a doctor, championed the line: “Dr. Paul cured my apathy.”
I defy you to find someone who held all of the same views as the elder Paul, but I also defy you to find someone who didn’t find him or herself nodding along at some point during one of Ron Paul’s speeches. If you know your Roman history, Ron Paul is a reincarnated Cato: a gadfly whose chief aim is to preserve the Republic.
Despite Ron Paul’s massive online following and his ability to solicit successful fundraising support, Paul was generally disfavored by the Republican establishment for his views and his support in the Republican primaries never really materialized. However, Paul’s dire warnings about the futility of foreign wars, spending, monetary policy, and personal liberty have begun to resonate in the base of the Party and gain a foothold in the electorate.
The Ron Paul Problem
While Dr. Paul’s views on American foreign involvement being the catalyst for the September 11 terrorist attacks are likely an accurate statement of the CIA “blowback” modeling, “blaming the victim” is not a good strategy to win the hearts and minds of the American public. Moreover, Dr. Paul’s often shrill and hyperbolic style made him an easy figure to mock and disregard.
As a Ron Paul supporter, I was furious with the way Dr. Paul was treated by the Republican Party. I knew that Dr. Paul’s chances of winning the nomination and the White House were extremely slim, but in the false dichotomy of Republican v. Democrat where both choices lead to the growth of government and the decline of personal and economic liberty, having a “third way” voice was a breath of fresh air. But, everyone with power is afraid to lose it. Ron Paul was marginalized, called an extremist, and his past statements on race relations were brought down on him like a hammer.
Now, I’m not writing to defend Ron Paul. As I mentioned above, you’d be hard-pressed to find a supporter who agrees with everything Dr. Paul says. Specifically, giving conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, and anti-Semites any platform of legitimacy is disgusting. The fringe that Dr. Paul occasionally played to, or allowed to have a seat at his table, would ultimately lead to his downfall. Paul could not distance himself from nutty people who cannibalized his brand.
The Irony of Ron Paul’s Failures
The irony of Dr. Paul’s failure as it relates to race relations is that Dr. Paul, of anyone running for President in 2008 or 2012, wanted to do the most to address pressing issues in minority communities. Paul’s support of decriminalization efforts and reducing incarceration rates for non-violent offenses put him squarely on the side of the economically disadvantaged underclasses in the United States. Similarly, Dr. Paul’s perceived anti-Semitism for proposing that Israel not receive funding from the United States was part of a broader message of non-interventionism. Allowing Israel to act without the United States holding its leash would, likely, have allowed Israel a greater degree of autonomy. Similarly, without American money flowing into Israel’s enemies, the net effect of stopping foreign aid would have been a benefit to Israel in the long run. However, part of the Republican Party in modern politics requires a submission to the interests of Israel for good of for ill. Ron Paul failed to kiss the ring and was labeled as an enemy.
I have to continue to say that Dr. Paul has certainly had some bad ideas, but the dialogue he fostered, especially among young conservatives, is his greatest legacy. Importantly, the libertarian mindset allows for young conservatives to break out of the Republican paradigm and support the decriminalization or legalization of certain drugs, the spread of gay marriage, sentencing reform, and increased privacy rights without being forced out of the Party. Each of these issues, along with fiscal austerity and monetary policy reforms, are critical to the survival of the Republican Party in light of coming demographic shifts and greater degrees of interconnectedness abroad.
So, what of Rand Paul?
Is Dr. Rand Paul his father? No. Rand Paul has learned from his father’s mistakes and is a formidable contender for the Republican nomination for the Presidency. This article, though, shouldn’t be about Senator Paul’s electability. Paul will either be elected or he won’t. Rather, the bigger question is, as the “Randwagon” picks up steam, will the libertarian movement find a safe harbor in the Republican Party?
Rand Paul has done an excellent job casting aside the fringe elements of his father’s base of supporters. You hardly find any of the conspiracy or racialist nuts who darkened every corner of the Ron Paul campaign hanging around in support of Rand. Rather, they’ve, for the most part, written Senator Paul off as a traitor or as a Zionist shill, or whatever. But, the bigger question is, is Rand Paul really that libertarian?
In the sense that Rand Paul has to get the Republican nomination for President, there are certain constituencies that have to be placated. Rand Paul must publicly support Israel. Rand Paul must support some degree of foreign interventionism. Rand Paul must work together with the moderates in the Senate. That’s all obvious. Rand Paul wants a seat at the table and America should want him there. If he has to compromise to get that seat that would otherwise pass to a “neocon,” I’d much rather have Senator Paul there.
Awakening a Movement or Governing a Nation
What Ron Paul did to awaken a movement and get people asking tough questions, Rand Paul is turning into a governing structure. Separate from the Tea Party, which has a whirlwind of ideas and litmus tests, Rand Paul is slowly guiding the libertarian movement into a position of power within the Republican Party. Showing that he can reach across the aisle and partner with liberal Democrats on issues like drugs, privacy, and sentencing reform while still supporting fiscal responsibility is a deft play that can make any future crusade of Senator Paul’s have legitimacy.
A perfect case-study of this legitimacy comes in comparing the two talking filibusters by Republican Senators in the past few years. The first was Senator Paul’s filibuster over drone strikes on American citizens. The second was Ted Cruz’s filibuster over the Affordable Care Act. Cruz was roundly condemned for shutting down the government and he ultimately failed in his attempt to get the funding for the ACA pulled. Contrast this with Rand Paul’s filibuster. Paul made a cogent argument: we need to get a position from the White House whether the Administration thinks it has the authority to use drone strikes to kill American citizens without trial. The issue was obvious and easily understandable. Senator Paul even got some support from Senate Democrats. Eventually, Paul got a meandering answer that was basically “yes.” Thus, Rand Paul has become the figure people see as a champion of individual liberty and the rule of law in the arena of the creep of “anti-terrorism.” Paul also became a public hero for his opposition to the TSA overreach.
The Benefit of Leadership
The best example of the benefit of Rand Paul to the American political discourse is that he is being attacked on almost every side. On the one hand, there are the hawks like Senators McCain and Graham who called Senator Paul’s simple “Don’t Drone Me Bro” argument “Whacko.” On another side, the conspiracy theorists and the hardliners have called Paul a sellout and accuse him of abandoning the purer libertarian philosophy. Yet another attack comes from the left that accuses Paul’s work to end racism merely a ploy to get votes. The list of attacks goes on.
What attacks on Paul show, however, is that his message is beginning to resonate. The Republican Party famously refused to let Ron Paul answer many questions in the 2008 and 2012 primary debates. Rand Paul’s run for the White House in 2016 will be considerably different. A figure with national prominence, significant fundraising ability, and a different style of leadership, even if Senator Paul fails to get the nomination or fails to win the White House, he remains a strong voice for moving the libertarian message forward.
In the end, the Republican Party will look back on the Pauls and thank them that they pushed the Party to embrace a more nuanced and liberty-minded approach to government.