By W. James Antle III | March 31, 2011
The title of Rand Paul’s new book is the Rorschach test of American politics. If you are a sardonic Jon Stewart liberal, The Tea Party Goes to Washington is probably reminiscent of “Ernest Goes to Camp”—it evokes images of rubes and rednecks descending on state dinners, putting their cowboy-booted feet on the table, and spitting their tobacco juice all over the fine china. Those liberals who don’t regard the Tea Party as a joke will likely picture an angry mob of reverse Robin Hoods stealing Treasury funds designated for the poor and handing them out to the rich. For partisan Republicans, the title harkens back to the good old days when the GOP ran the nation’s capital.
Senator Paul wants readers to see something else entirely: the ascendancy of a grassroots movement dedicated to an older conservatism, one that traces its roots back to the American Founding. “[T]he Tea Party does not seek to simply go back to the Bush years when the debt was a mere $12 trillion as opposed to $13 trillion,” he writes. “Nor does the Tea Party seek simply to return to the same old Republican rhetoric where limited government was promised but never delivered, the Constitution was referenced but never followed and the Founding Fathers were quoted but never heeded.”
So far, the freshman senator from Kentucky has tried to govern in this fashion. While his fellow Republicans struggled to identify $60 billion in budget reductions, Paul proposed $500 billion in spending cuts in one year—without even touching the major entitlement programs that make up 60 percent of the federal budget. (He promises to tackle those later.) The Rand plan did, however, trim some fat from the Pentagon.
Having a Paul in Congress voting for less government spending and more fidelity to the Constitution is nothing new, of course. Ron Paul, the senator’s father, has served 12 terms in the House. During that time, the Texas congressman’s lonely dissents against big government earned him the nickname “Dr. No.” The elder Paul’s 2008 Republican presidential campaign brought together a coalition of constitutionalists, libertarians, and noninterventionist conservatives who were concerned about the rapidly metastasizing national debt long before Barack Obama took the oath of office. This liberty movement also made Rand Paul a national figure capable of mounting a credible Senate bid.
Yet a single senator has much more influence than the average congressman. There is some justice in Lyndon Johnson’s crude remark, “The difference between being a member of the Senate and a member of the House is the difference between chicken salad and chicken s–t.” Ron Paul’s positions were largely ignored until he began appearing in televised debates alongside John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Giuliani. But Rand Paul’s pronouncements have attracted media attention almost from the moment he launched his Senate campaign.
There is also a more significant difference. Even as it became clear that Ron Paul was gaining a national following, the rest of the Republican Party wanted little to do with him or his colorful young supporters. The Paul 2008 campaign’s emphasis was on the congressman’s dissent from the Bush-era party line on foreign policy. This prompted tense exchanges with McCain, Giuliani, and Mike Huckabee during the Republican debates. Both the GOP’s national chairman, Michael Steele, and the Michigan state party chief, Saul Anuzis, said publicly that Congressman Paul would be more comfortable on stage with the Democratic presidential candidates. Prominent conservative commentators mocked Paul as a liberal or worse.
Not so Rand Paul. Yes, the Republican establishment in both Kentucky and Washington pulled out all the stops to beat him in the primary. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and most GOP elected officials in Kentucky endorsed the younger Paul’s primary opponent. But they quickly buried the hatchet after the primary was over. McConnell offered Paul his advice. So did Karl Rove. The National Republican Senatorial Committee devoted resources to his campaign rather than give him the Christine O’Donnell treatment.
Even before the primary, Rand Paul drew support from beyond his father’s base in the liberty movement. Sarah Palin endorsed him, saying she and he were “both in agreement that it’s time to shake up the status quo in Washington.” So did Sen. Jim DeMint, who emerged as a conservative kingmaker in last year’s primaries. Steve Forbes threw his support behind Paul, saying, “I see in Rand someone who can take the fight from the Tea Parties to the Senate, and help take back our government and our country from the out-of-control, tax-and-spend liberals.” James Dobson called his early support for Paul’s opponent an “embarrassing mistake” and cut an ad for Rand.
Perhaps most tellingly, Ron Paul received just 7 percent of the vote in Kentucky’s 2008 GOP presidential primary. Rand Paul won the Senate primary with 59 percent of the vote, topping the establishment candidate by 20 points. Conservatives who might have voted for Romney, Huckabee, or Fred Thompson for president joined Ron Paul supporters in backing Rand for Senate. The party establishment was forced to accept the grassroots’ verdict because polls showed that unlike some other Tea Party candidates, Rand Paul could win. And the Kentucky Senate seat was not one the national GOP could afford to lose.
This era of good feeling has persisted since Rand arrived in Washington. Perfectly mainstream conservative candidates cite Rand Paul alongside Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey as the kind of Republican the country needs to be electing. Conservative websites like Townhall.com circulate e-mail petitions in Paul’s name. Paul co-founded the Senate Tea Party Caucus with DeMint and has been co-sponsoring legislation with Sens. David Vitter and Kay Bailey Hutchison. During his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February, Senator Paul even made favorable mention of Sen. Susan Collins, a notorious moderate Republican.
But Rand hasn’t exactly disappointed his father’s supporters either. His $500 billion spending-cuts plan not only touched the military but zeroed out all foreign aid—including military assistance to Israel. Paul was a leader in the fight against extending the Patriot Act and was ultimately one of only two Republican senators to vote against doing so. (Fellow Tea Partier Mike Lee of Utah supplied the second vote.) In The Tea Party Goes to Washington, Senator Paul repeats that he would have voted against the Iraq War. In his chapter on a conservative foreign policy, he writes, “Many Republicans treat war like Democrats treat welfare.” Paul has been sounding an increasingly skeptical note about remaining in Afghanistan. So far, only his position on aid to Israel has drawn widespread Republican criticism.
CPAC was another example of Rand Paul’s broad reach. Ron Paul won the presidential straw poll for the second year running. But while his supporters cheered, the backers of other candidates booed lustily. The tension between Paulites and other CPAC attendees was often palpable. Yet when Rand Paul spoke at the gathering, there was rapt attention and even applause from both sides. The comity was short-lived—after Rand, Cheney came to the podium to present a “Defender of the Constitution” award to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as Paul supporters jeered the two Iraq War architects—but notable.
An exit poll taken at a major Tea Party event last year found that Sarah Palin and Ron Paul were the movement’s most admired politicians. The new Senator Paul brings these two strains together. More importantly, he may be able to serve as a connection between his father’s supporters and the mainstream Republican Party. The GOP needs the young blood Ron Paul has given it, but the establishment has shown neither the desire nor the ability to integrate Paulites into the party. And when Paul supporters do get a place at the table, they too often seem more interested in showing poor table manners than in using the party to accomplish something constructive.
Rand Paul isn’t afraid to criticize other Republicans. In his book, he is hard on both George W. Bush and John McCain. Of the billboards depicting Bush with the caption “Miss me yet?” Paul writes, “Any self-described conservative who ‘misses’ the last president and his version of the Republican Party should probably quit subscribing to that label.” But he is also careful to tie his anti-Bush argument to his case his against Obama: “Contrary to his supporters’ belief, Obama’s agenda has not been a reversal of Bush’s agenda but an extension of it, only more ambitious in its scope and even more reckless in spending.”
Moreover, Paul doesn’t always side against Bush. “Throughout his presidency, Bush was routinely depicted as Hitler, Stalin, Satan, you name it,” he writes. Rand Paul makes common cause with fellow Republicans whenever possible. When his predecessor, Sen. Jim Bunning, retired, he made a point to praise Bunning’s vote against the bank bailout rather than to excoriate his vote for the Iraq War. In his book, Paul doesn’t find fault with Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup but explains how today’s conditions are different. Paul has even teamed with Mitch McConnell on a bill to repeal net neutrality.
When calling for reductions in military spending, Paul always emphasizes that national defense is the federal government’s constitutional duty and most important task. When opposing unnecessary wars, he is careful to point out that sometimes the use of force is necessary. The Kentucky senator calls attention to his areas of agreement with mainstream Republicans on issues like tax cuts and abortion. His dissents from the party line are frequent but tend to be measured and respectful.
In substance, Rand Paul has only backed away from two of his father’s positions: civilian trials for certain terrorism suspects and earmarks. Both fights are simply unwinnable in today’s GOP. And while the principle behind earmarking is constitutionally sound, the practice frequently is not: many of these local projects are unconstitutional, if mathematically insignificant, expenditures. But it is in style that the two Pauls most differ.
After his famous exchange with Rudy Giuliani over 9/11 and American foreign policy, Ron Paul felt it was most important to defend the concept of blowback. He pointed out that this explanation for terrorism had credible, mainstream proponents. He held a press conference the next day to assign Giuliani a reading list on the topic. But the elder Paul failed to rebut Giuliani’s most politically damaging charge: that the congressman believed the terrorist attacks were somehow justified. He seemed to think Giuliani’s jab was so self-evidently absurd it didn’t need to be answered.
Rand Paul did not repeat that mistake in his campaign for Senate. In his speeches and writings, it is clear that the younger Paul agrees with his father that interventionism in the Middle East makes America more vulnerable to terrorism. But rather than let his primary opponent bait him into an academic discussion of blowback, Rand Paul forcefully denied that attacks against the United States were ever justified and said we were right to fight back. Paul understood that before Republicans will listen to your arguments about the root causes of terrorism, they want to know whose side you are on. As Bush might put it, “You are either with us or against us.”
A failing of Ron Paul’s first GOP presidential campaign was that he sometimes framed his arguments in ways that made them easier for his opponents to distort. It’s a pitfall his son tries to avoid. The difference is to some extent understandable. Ron Paul’s presidential run was initially conceived as an educational effort, a way of inserting antiwar and pro-civil-liberties positions into the Republican debates. The candidate himself never expected to have the resources for a more serious campaign and was thus unprepared when his supporters actually raised the money for one. Rand Paul, by contrast, knew what kind of funds he could raise and was running to win from the beginning.
Senator Paul’s success could have several salutary effects. It could increase the influence of his father’s libertarian-minded supporters while also gaining a mainstream hearing for Austrian economics and strict adherence to the Constitution. The senator could also prevent the Tea Party from becoming a mere appendage of the GOP rather than a party within a party. In the absence of leadership, that’s a real risk: a Pew survey found that the percentage of Tea Partiers who are angry at the federal government has declined from 47 percent last September to just 28 percent now that Republicans control the House. If Paul can keep the Tea Party from being defanged, he could also end up nudging the Republicans in a less statist direction.
There is precedent for this. When conservative Christians first entered the GOP, they frequently clashed with party regulars. Their national organizations were loud but ineffectual. Republicans struggled to integrate the religious right; Christian conservatives had an equally hard time making their political activism effective. Then the Christian Coalition grew out of Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign. Under the guidance of Ralph Reed, the organization built up its membership and influence. Coalition members won election to party leadership positions. Party regulars adopted more socially conservative positions to appeal to them.
Although the Christian Coalition is now all but defunct, its imprimatur is still on the GOP. White evangelicals gave the last Republican president a third of his popular vote. But the Christian right’s success is also a cautionary tale for the liberty movement. Ralph Reed turned out to be more ambitious than principled. Religious conservatives became precinct chairmen, but their major policy objectives remain unfulfilled. Pro-family activists busy themselves with fights over social-issues truces and CPAC’s exhibit hall. What does it profit a movement to gain a major party but lose its soul?
Yet the Christian right’s problems were not as inevitable as the failure that will attend either political quietism or symbolic activism. The balance between using the GOP and being used by it is difficult to maintain in practice, but that does not make it impossible. Rand Paul could yet turn out differently from Ralph Reed. In response to predictions that Republican leaders will co-opt the Tea Party, he says, “We’re loud, we’re proud, and we will co-opt them!” That remains to be seen. What we do know is that a formula for winning within the Republican Party on the Pauls’ platform has been devised, and so far it seems to be working. That knowledge could come in handy in a future campaign.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.