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How Rand Paul Threatens Left and Right

Libertarian-inflected conservatism challenges entrenched political coalitions with a transpartisan appeal.
Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Vox’s Zack Beauchamp declared last week, “Rand Paul just gave one of the most important foreign policy speeches in decades.” BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray didn’t see what the big deal was, responding, “I’m confused by these takes on Paul’s speech as if the content was new. He’s been saying the same stuff for some time.”

She’s not wrong. But neither is Beauchamp. In many ways Paul’s foreign policy speech Thursday was nothing new for the senator.

That does not make it any less monumental.

Beauchamp found Paul’s call for a more restrained military approach important because “Paul is signaling that, when he runs for president in 2016, he isn’t going to move toward the Republican foreign policy consensus; he’s going to run at it, with a battering ram.”

Paul’s foreign policy vision is significantly different from every other rumored 2016 GOP presidential candidate. “If he wins,” Beauchamp emphasizes, “he could remake the Republican Party as we know it.”

The Kentucky senator has consistently challenged long-held GOP views on issues like the war on drugs and federal drug sentencing laws by taking positions that once would have been considered almost exclusively left. Paul has introduced legislation ending the practice of civil asset forfeitures—police taking and keeping someone’s property based on nothing more than suspicion—an issue that had previously received little attention in Washington. The libertarian-leaning senator’s well-received address at progressive Berkeley last year on the dangers of the surveillance state would have been unthinkable for almost any Republican during the George W. Bush era.

When even President Obama and Hillary Clinton were hesitant to address the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri in August, Paul did, tackling the dangers of police militarization in a way that would earn him praise across the ideological spectrum. This month Paul met with black leaders in Ferguson. He has been the first potential 2016 presidential candidate of either party to do so.

In 2013, when the senator filibustered John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director over drone policy and due process for U.S. citizens, he swung public opinion a whopping 50 points on an issue that hadn’t even been on most Americans’ radar. The Tea Party loved it so much Republican hawks that generally disagreed with Paul on national security-related civil liberties issues felt compelled to join him on the Senate floor, to thank Rand for taking a “stand.” Code Pink thanked him too.

Last year, The Daily Beast’s David Friedlander asked, “How did Rand Paul become a liberal hero?” Friedlander said Paul had “emerged as one of the nation’s most articulate defenders of progressive values…” and that “should he run (for president), he would represent a new kind of figure on the American political landscape.”

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out who Paul upsets more—liberals who are embarrassed the Republican senator might be more outspoken than most Democrats on core progressive issues, or Republicans whose idea of conservatism is often something very different from—and even antithetical to—Paul’s vision.

Liberals like Mother Jones’ David Corn appear worried about what kind of appeal Paul might have on the left, when they continuously go out of their way to portray Paul in the most unflattering light imaginable. The ideological mirror image of Corn’s fears can be seen at right-wing outlets like the Washington Free Beacon, who fret Paul might be turning Republicans away from the neoconservative post-9/11 foreign policy consensus that defined the Bush years. Like Corn’s recent digs at Paul at Mother Jones, you will be hard pressed to find many positive stories about the son of Ron Paul at the Free Beacon, but you will find consistent attempts to relegate the senator to the fringe. (Disclosure: my own “Southern Avenger” radio history and relationship with Senator Paul would become a well-publicized part of this effort.).

But left and right partisans’ uneasiness is not unwarranted. Many conventional liberals and conservatives grimace at Paul blurring left-right boundaries in ways that make their stock partisanship harder. There has always been a comfort, whether out of genuine conviction or just intellectual laziness, in simply blaming “those conservatives” or “those liberals” for every problem.

In forcing wider and more substantive debates, Paul threatens entrenched political identities in ways that undermine the very premises of those identities. Too much re-examining of what’s “right” and what’s “left” might create problems. For politicians and pundits accustomed to mere mudslinging, Paul’s approach challenges their model. At a time when more Americans than ever are identifying as independents, Paul makes partisans uncomfortable.

When Time dubbed Paul “the most interesting man in politics” this month, former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele observed “I call him the most dangerous man in politics, because he has the ability to draw from the Democrats as well as the Republican bases in a way that could upset a few apple carts if this thing strikes the way he is talking.”

No doubt, Rand Paul will keep talking, and his transpartisan message might keep resonating. That’s what so many in Washington today are afraid of.

Jack Hunter is the Editor of Rare.us and the former New Media Director for Senator Rand Paul.



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