There’s a word for Rand Paul’s mix of constitutionalism and populism: conservatism.
By Jack Hunter
On election night in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Rand Paul and his wife Kelley stood on the side of the stage where he would soon give his victory speech. They were beaming as they watched their sons onstage jamming their guitars to the chords of “TNT” by Australian rockers AC/DC. Rand had chosen the tune, a personal favorite, for his introduction. I was put in charge of helping the boys with their instruments—for the record, 14-year-old Duncan needed little help—and from where I was standing I had a direct view of Rand and his wife. I don’t know whether they were smiling more over pride in their sons or the fact that Rand had just been elected to the United States Senate.
I still don’t know. As Rand stated time and again during the campaign, he had entered politics to do something about the enormous debt the government was heaping on his sons and future generations. This was not only Rand’s basic message but that of the Tea Party as well, and the day after the election New York magazine wondered if Rand had become the “Tea Partier-in-Chief.” Would he raise hell in Washington, D.C., a populist hooligan unleashed in the halls of Congress? For the enthusiastic crowd gathered at the Bowling Green Convention Center that night, there was no question.
But meeting Rand, one does not think “hell-raiser” or “hooligan.” Cool and contemplative perhaps, maybe serious or studious. My first thought was that Rand had some of the same mannerisms and vocal inflections as his father—and like his dad, he would probably rather read about economics than hold meetings with the politicians who were screwing up the economy.
My second thought was that Rand was probably too smart for politics. That was what seemed to frighten the bipartisan establishment the most. Rand Paul becoming a U.S. Senator was simply not supposed to happen. On the night Rand won his primary, former Bush speechwriter David Frum lamented, “Rand Paul’s victory in the Kentucky Republican primary is obviously a depressing event for those who support strong national defense and rational conservative politics. How is it that the GOP has lost its antibodies against a candidate like Rand Paul?”
Frum was not alone in his concern. When Paul first announced his candidacy he couldn’t get invited to any GOP forums, and he registered barely 15 percent in the polls. A year later, he was tracking well ahead of his primary opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, and had drawn the ire of state and national political insiders. The constellation of power arrayed against him was impressive, including leaders of the state Republican Party, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Senator Rick Santorum, and, perhaps most emblematic of the establishment’s fears, former Vice President Dick Cheney.
At the time, Cheney had only injected himself into two midterm primaries—first to endorse Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Texas governor’s race, then to endorse Rand’s opponent. Cheney’s statement said, “I’m a lifelong conservative, and I can tell the real thing when I see it. I have looked at the records of both candidates in the race, and it is clear to me that Trey Grayson is right on the issues that matter—both on fiscal responsibility and on national security.”
Discussing Cheney en route to a Tea Party event in Paducah, Rand did not hesitate to voice his opinion about his Republican foes: “They are the true neocons, they are ‘conservative’ because they’re military hawks, but they are not conservative, because they are not fiscally conservative. Didn’t [Cheney] say ‘deficits don’t matter’?” No matter how personal his critics became, Rand would always discuss the neoconservatives in measured tones, treating them like has-beens, fossils without a place in the new Tea Party environment.
And he had a point. Where Frum and Cheney were most honest was not in questioning Rand’s conservative bona fides but in their concern that dissent might emerge among Republicans on the issue that had most defined the Bush presidency—national defense. Republican candidates were permitted to criticize Bush’s big-government record but never his foreign policy. But with the election of Obama and the ongoing recession, the habits that had taken hold under Bush were reversed—grassroots conservatives quickly became hard-line hawks against big government but less rigid on foreign policy.
Just how decisively the tide had turned against Cheney’s worldview was demonstrated by the margin of Rand’s victories. The Tea Party swept him to a whopping 24-point win in the Republican primary and a healthy 12-point win in the general election.
But these successes did not come easily, and Paul wound up disappointing some friends and foes alike. Much of this stemmed from inevitable comparisons between Rand and his libertarian firebrand father, with supporters wishing Rand would behave more like Ron and opponents fearing the same. But in a state where nearly 60 percent of voters were registered Democrats and where Ron Paul only received 7 percent of the vote in the 2008 Republican presidential primary, it was obvious that Rand would not be able to run a race like his father’s and win.
When speaking about his relationship with his father, Rand always gives the impression that each of them is his own man, yet they are so similar in their politics that the differences are barely worth mentioning. I felt dumb asking questions about it, as it became clearer that the individualist politics of both men were reflected in their personal relationship.
Although Rand’s primary campaign had been a war on the Republican establishment as much as on the Democrats, partisanship can sometimes be useful. After the primary, Senator McConnell made peace with the Paul camp, and one campaign staffer relates the story that McConnell told Rand he could cause as much trouble as he liked once he got to the Senate—but he’d better get there. As minority leader, Kentucky’s senior senator had a personal stake in seeing as many GOP Senate nominees as possible succeed.
Rand would occasionally talk to McConnell by phone on the campaign trail, always politely thanking the senator for his electoral advice, which would typically be followed. But that was where their alliance ended. Even so, many of Paul’s libertarian and Tea Party supporters cringed at the very thought of their candidate receiving help from—or worse, making public appearances with—arguably the most establishment Republican of them all.
Rand took help wherever he could get it. Tactical advice certainly couldn’t hurt, and as Rand would admit, he’s simply not a natural campaigner. He does it well, and obviously successfully, but he is a thinker more than a strategist, not unlike his father. His demeanor is overtly rational and says much about who he is and how he campaigns: he starts conversations with the intention of having a civil discussion.
Throughout the campaign Rand would insist on having “adult conversations” about relevant issues, saying that Social Security and Medicare were insolvent, that we could no longer pretend that debt and deficits don’t matter, and that government healthcare and cap and trade would turn out to be tragedies. Rand said the Patriot Act was unconstitutional, the Iraq War was wrongly waged, and our foreign policy was no longer affordable. He raised the question of whether we should still be in Afghanistan.
During televised debates with Jack Conway, his Democratic opponent, Rand would sometimes seem perplexed that his opponent wasn’t listening to his actual words. At one debate, Conway asked, “Are you talking down to me?” Rand’s eyes got wide, and it looked as if he wanted to nod his head in the affirmative, but he never did. Yet he didn’t say no either.
Analyzing the debate, MSNBC analyst Pat Buchanan said Paul “looked like a tutor, he’s very professorial, he’s giving instructions on a complex issue. … Rand Paul looks like a very intelligent, thoughtful guy who’s trying to get across a point to a pretty slow student.” I asked Rand if he’d heard Buchanan’s comments. He had and was pleased. His wife would later tell a story about her first brush with national politics—a trip to North Carolina with her husband to support Buchanan for president.
Rand’s professorial nature comes through at surprising times. When a major donor requested that Rand visit a few contacts in Washington, D.C.—including Weekly Standard editor William Kristol—some of his libertarian supporters shrieked that the candidate had crossed over to the dark side. In fact, as one campaign staffer told me, most of the conversation centered on Rand trying to explain to Kristol why the neoconservative policy toward Israel was irrational. Kristol tolerated Rand for a bit but eventually left the candidate with an assistant. Rand then visited the Cato Institute and made a few other stops that day, never thinking his meeting with Kristol was particularly controversial until worried supporters said otherwise.
Similarly, after the Rachel Maddow controversy in which the MSNBC host drubbed him for his reservations about one provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act—she equated Rand’s support for private-property rights with the reinstitution of Jim Crow laws—he intended to go on “Meet the Press” to explain his position in detail. He was only dissuaded from doing so by the insistence of his top adviser: his wife.
Despite his characteristically blunt logic, Rand has a knack for customizing sophisticated libertarian and conservative ideas for mainstream audiences accustomed to more conventional Republican rhetoric. His talent in this regard served him particularly well in foreign-policy discussions. At one campaign stop, a man asked the candidate about his views on Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Rand answered: “I think the most important thing we do with the federal government is our national defense, bar none, but then I think it’s open to debate what is in our national defense. The problem with Afghanistan is that we’ve now been there ten years, and the question is, ‘is ten years long enough?’”
This didn’t seem controversial to the questioner, and Rand would strike much the same tone throughout the campaign. Where his father might denounce American empire, Rand asks whether the U.S. really needs hundreds of military bases around the globe. Where Ron might have called for immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, Rand says that we need to have a national debate on the war and questions whether nation-building is truly conservative. Ron liked to comment on the immorality of U.S. foreign policy. Rand prefers to say we can’t afford it.
Rand points out that Democrats always want to cut the military but never the welfare queen, and Republicans are always for reducing the welfare queen but never the military—yet to overcome the debt we would have to look at paring down everything. This was never a shocking message to Tea Party ears, however unsettling it might have been for the big-government hawks who had long controlled the Republican Party’s foreign policy.
This is a large part of what makes Rand unique not only among Republicans but even among Tea Party paladins. Many outsider candidates give voice to voter discontent with the status quo, but Rand does so while offering a deeper philosophy that ventures beyond mere populism: a substantive conservative politics. The continuing mixture of Rand’s ideas and the Tea Party could produce a more comprehensively conservative grassroots movement, just as the Tea Party has already produced a more politically successful Paul. Achieving this cross-pollination will require addressing the contradictions within the Tea Party—particularly its willingness to tolerate big government under the Department of Defense banner.
The same hardheadedness that required his wife to intervene in canceling a television interview is a stubbornness the U.S. Senate will now have to deal with. Rand told me that he would like to be judged by how he votes, not how he campaigns. The time I spent with him on the trail revealed a candidate who much prefers to come up with serious policy solutions rather than issue slogans or press statements. The campaign also revealed a man who is most at home with his family, including his famous father, and who realizes that his family’s long-marginalized philosophical brand might now have the potential to become a transformative force in the Republican Party, if not American politics.
Jack Hunter is a conservative commentator and columnist living in Charleston, South Carolina. He has worked as an assistant to Rand Paul’s Senate campaign.
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