A tribute to the retiring Mariano Rivera? A wink to the notion that he haunts John McCain’s nightmares? Either way, Rand Paul entered the CPAC stage yesterday to the musical stylings of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” and full-throated roars of approval from the conservative crowd. First elected in 2010, the junior senator from Kentucky has been on something of a political tear of late, and he built off of the momentum from his social media fueled filibuster to offer a textbook demonstration of his skill at covering libertarian ideas in conservative partisan trappings.
Paul began his speech by declaring he had “a message for the President, “a message that is loud and clear, a message that doesn’t mince words.” Listen to three speeches at CPAC, and you’ll hear that four times, followed by a standard GOP platitude. The red-meat crowd sensed their priming and loaded up to applaud an attack on Obamacare, the virtues of America the Beautiful, or some similar staple. Paul gave them: “no one person gets to decide the law, no one person gets to decide your guilt or innocence.” From the first, his speech demonstrated the rhetorical talent Paul the Younger brings to his increasingly large national profile.
In his further attack on President Obama, Paul demanded to know “will you or won’t you defend the Constitution?” The crowd ate it up, so he slipped into Eisenhower, usually more in vogue in the pages of The American Conservative than the ACU, asking “How far can you go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend without?” The Senator followed with Montesquieu and the separation of powers but concluded the point by saying “Our Bill of Rights is what defines us and makes us exceptional.” Feeding off the guaranteed applause for American exceptionalism, Paul defended himself against John McCain and Lindsay Graham by draping himself in the cause of the wounded warriors, “the 6,000 parents whose kids died as American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Paul was defending the Bill of Rights so that the soldiers might not have died in vain, thus co-opting the rhetoric that extended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With a deft step, John McCain was rhetorically wrong-footed.
Senator Paul proceeded to bring in more platitudes, that “The President believes that we should squeeze more money out of those who are working,” but Paul is “here to tell you, what we need to do is leave more money in the pockets of those who earned it.” It’s a fine point, and one that Paul probably believes in, but the purpose was to prime, initiating a series of attacks on President Obama, each building credibility for Paul with the partisan crowd before he got to more idiosyncratic positions. He segued stock examples of wasteful and silly-seeming spending into “This government is completely out-of-control. We desperately need a new course and new leadership.” The anti-Obama sentiment surged forward on primed demand as Paul enunciated his presumptive 2016 platform: “The path forward for the Republican Party is rooted in respect for the Constitution and respect for the individual.”
Rand Paul was just about to get into iffy territory, staking out some of his more libertarian positions and so started his rights talk with “allowing Americans to freely exercise one of their most basic rights, the right to bear arms.” As automatic applause cut in again, the Senator summarized his 2016 stump speech: “The Facebook generation can detect falseness and hypocrisy a mile away. They are the core of the ‘leave me alone’ coalition… They want leaders that wont feed them a line of crap or sell them short. They aren’t afraid of individual liberty.” Anytime a politician starts talking about falseness-and-hypocrisy detection, look to his next election. As the conservative movement decried its inability to reach young people not currently in the convention halls, Paul set out that he would be the man to do it.
Those “libertarian kids” McCain so disdained are the ones Rand Paul is counting on. He paired “Ask them whether we should put a kid in jail for the nonviolent crime of drug use and you’ll hear a resounding no” with “Ask them if they want to bail out Too-Big-To-Fail banks with their tax dollars. And you’ll hear a hell no.” Applause was mandatory for the second line, so it rubbed some respectability off on the first. The most telling line of the speech followed “There is nothing conservative about bailing out Wall Street.” Paul said: “Likewise, there is nothing progressive about billion dollar loans to millionaires to build solar panels.” That line fell slightly flat, because it was not directed at those in the hall. Paul is going after Obama’s youth, with the idea that “The new GOP, the GOP that will win again, will need to embrace liberty in both the economic and personal sphere.”
Time will tell if Rand Paul’s early bid for 2016 is successful. But he’s got the rhetorical chops to pull it off.