Rand Paul and the Prime-Time Test
I had two illuminating conversations about Rand Paul this week. One, from a libertarian who worked the Kentucky campaign who felt that in endorsing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Rand was throwing what has come to be known as the “liberty movement,” under the bus. The other conversation was with a local fan of my work, a casual, independent voter who had supported Ron Paul during the South Carolina GOP presidential primary mostly because of my radio rants. Said this gentleman late Saturday night, beer in hand, “I liked Ron, Jack, but what’s up with his son supporting segregation?”
Let the games begin.
It was evident from the beginning that Rand was going to be a different candidate than his father. Whereas Ron would talk bluntly and openly about issues that might roil mainstream Republican audiences, Rand seemed to take these sensitivities into account, essentially parlaying the same message as Ron only using more measured rhetoric. Other times Rand went off the libertarian reservation— deviating from his father’s stance on Gitmo, saying he would support the CRA, and even saying that nuclear action against Iran should not be off the table. Was this a Paul or Rand Limbaugh?
Both, and necessarily so. If Rand ran a primary campaign like his father’s in Kentucky, Ron’s legions of fans would likely not have a stake in that state’s senate election right now. When Rand said Gitmo should remain open, I cringed—and approved of him taking that position, understanding his dilemma from my own deep red Republican state of South Carolina. When Rand said he would have voted for the CRA my only problem is that he did not say it sooner—and I still pretty much agree with Barry Goldwater’s opposition to that legislation. Segregation does not need to be a topic of discussion in any debate with his Democratic opponent. It’s an irrelevant issue constructed intentionally to keep Rand off message. And it has.
There’s a huge difference between playing politics to advance principle and pretending to be principled to advance one’s self. Rand is certainly no Mitt Romney and his problem has never been that he has too few principles but too many—at least in the sense that his libertarian ideals might not jibe with the sound bite driven, dumbed-down world of practical politics. In fact, this is exactly what his mainstream critics—both Left and Right—are now saying, at the same moment many of his hard Right and hardcore libertarian critics are accusing Rand of not having any principle at all.
In recent days there has been much criticism of Rand by the mainstream media, but more distressing, those to Paul’s Right. Daniel McCarthy of the American Conservative puts their concern into context: “Rand Paul is not running to be a spokesman for paleoconservatism or libertarianism, the role in which he has been cast by Ross Douthat and many of his father’s supporters. He’s a Republican politician who identifies himself a conservative. By the standards of that species, he seems pretty good. If the species itself is something that paleos and libertarians cannot support, then so be it.”
“Pretty good” is right, and McCarthy not only reflects my own views on Rand perfectly, but explains why paleos and libertarians should support him: “I think the odds are that he’ll be better than his colleagues: if he wanted to be perfectly safe and unobjectionable to GOP voters, he would never have said anything critical about U.S. foreign policy. No group of voters ever gets 100 percent of what it wants from any political candidate. The question is, if you can get 80 or 90 percent, should you try to achieve that? If not, you aren’t in politics… I’m willing to give Rand Paul a chance. He won’t vote the way I want on every issue, but he’ll counter-balance some of the more ideologically imperialist forces in Washington. There’s a pressing need for that.”
Pressing indeed. Conservatives and libertarians upset by some of Paul’s questionable stances or rhetoric should remember there’s a reason Dick Cheney’s aide sounded the alarm early on Rand, or as the Politico reported in March: “On foreign policy, [global war on terror], Gitmo, Afghanistan, Rand Paul is NOT one of us,’ Cesar Conda wrote in an e-mail to figures such as Liz Cheney, William Kristol, Robert Kagan, Dan Senor and Marc Thiessen.”
For all his ideological imperfections and occasionally disappointing stances, Rand is the neoconservatives’ worst nightmare precisely because a Senator Paul could feasibly wield significant anti-imperial influence. Yet, at precisely the moment Sarah Palin is being pushed aside in favor of Rand as the leader of the Tea Party—possibly bringing a much more Old Right brand of Republicanism to Capitol Hill and the masses—some of his father’s staunchest supporters seem ready to bail (even as Ron stands by Rand). My question is this: Are paleoconservatives and libertarians really ready to go “prime time”—enduring the inevitable awkwardness and discomfort of meshing their long marginalized philosophy with the mainstream—or are they more comfortable simply arguing among themselves?