Rand Paul has emerged as the leading politician preaching the liberty-movement gospel, but occasionally he still runs afoul of the faithful. A recent example was the reaction to remarks he made at an evangelical gathering in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot,” the Washington Post quoted Paul as saying. “I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative.”
Damn straight you’re no libertarian, responded Reason’s Mike Riggs. “He wants to keep everything illegal, but institute gentler penalties,” Riggs wrote of the senator from Kentucky. “That’s not remotely libertarian.”
Riggs’s colleague Nick Gillespie added, “If he’s serious about scraping the moss off the Republican Party, he needs to boldly defend his most contrarian, libertarian positions rather than temper his comments based on his speaking venue.”
Indeed, reforming the GOP is as much the task Paul has set for himself as seeking its presidential nomination in 2016. He is unusually popular with young activists for a member of his party. He has spoken at venues like historically black Howard University, where he is less likely to encounter Republican voters than in Cedar Rapids.
Sometimes his efforts to broaden the party’s appeal have sat uneasily alongside his quest to be the most reliable Tea Party conservative. This has led him to thread some important needles—and also occasionally sound too equivocal. Issues like marriage, abortion, immigration, and even drugs may prove difficult to straddle.
Gillespie worries that if “Paul continues to send significantly different messages to different audiences, he will end up alienating all his possible supporters.”
That’s a real risk. But if one could win the Republican presidential nomination by sounding like Gary Johnson, Johnson would have stayed in the GOP primaries rather than running as the Libertarian Party nominee.
To win the nomination, Paul must build on his father’s strong showings in states like Iowa and New Hampshire while attracting the votes of Republicans who supported Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and even Mitt Romney in 2012. To reform the party, he cannot afford to alienate everyone already in it.
During the last GOP presidential race, Ron Paul was asked at an early candidates’ debate why Christian conservatives in South Carolina should vote for him. The straitlaced Texas congressman was pro-life, a supporter of religious liberty, and—quelle surprise!—no booster of same-sex marriage. But his answer focused on legalizing heroin, including an amusing impression of a would-be smack addict.
The elder Paul finished fourth in South Carolina, beginning the descent of his promising 2012 campaign. He accomplished the first step—building a movement that could one day change the Republican Party—but more is required to complete the journey.
Rand Paul’s problems are the Republican Party’s. The GOP must find a way to speak to new people and grow, without repelling its current base. It must determine how best to adapt old principles to changing political circumstances, building a fresh case for what conservatives consider permanent things.
That’s no easy task, so it’s unsurprising Paul has stumbled at times. But more Republicans need to be trying. Most other outreach-oriented Republicans tend to disrespect the base and its values, in style if not substance—think Jon Huntsman, for example. Many conservatives simply repeat campaign slogans of the Reagan era.
A more robust federalism might help both pro-lifers and drug-legalizers realize more of their short-term policy goals than rhetoric about ending either Roe v. Wade or the war on drugs ever could. Libertarians might learn to shrink government the way statists have often expanded it—through incremental steps—with politically achievable things like more lenient sentences for drug offenders, freeing more people than by talking about heroin.
But to succeed within any political party, one must first make common cause with the rank and file. Those of like mind with Paul might want to consider this verse when next in Cedar Rapids: “Be therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the newly released Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?