What to make of maverick Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s latest speechifying? “I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot,” Paul insisted last Friday while speaking to a group of religious Republicans in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative.” Mindful of evangelical contempt for libertarianism—one attendee told The Washington Post, “Straight libertarianism has nothing Christian about it”—Paul came across as almost desperate to establish that he’s not endorsing state laws legalizing marijuana and allowing for gay marriages.
In a special aired on the Christian Broadcast Network, Paul talked about his willingness to devolve questions of marriage equality to the states not out of philosophical principle but out of political expediency: “We’re going to lose that battle, because the country is going the other way right now,” he said. “If we’re to say each state can decide, I think a good 25 or 30 states still do believe in traditional marriage, and maybe we allow that debate to go on for another couple of decades and see if we can still win back the hearts and minds of people.”
How to reconcile this Paul with the galvanizing figure whose 13-hour filibuster on the Senate floor demanded—and got—an unambiguously straight answer from the Obama administration on the possible use of drones to kill Americans? Or the Paul who warned at CPAC that “the GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered ... encumbered by an inconsistent approach to freedom” and called on the party to “embrace liberty in both the economic and the personal sphere”?
The gap between his remarks to evangelicals and those directed at the party faithful raise the question: is Rand Paul simply the latest in a long line of Republicans who cultivate libertarian-leaning voters—broadly speaking, people who believe in fiscal conservatism and social liberalism—as they gear up for presidential bids? And then disappoint those same voters almost immediately? In a 1975 interview with Reason shortly before he made a nearly successful primary run at Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan opined, “I don’t believe in a government that protects us from ourselves,” and “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism”—before attacking the idea of legalizing drugs, gambling, prostitution, pornography, and other “nonvictim” crimes.
In Paul’s defense, there is nothing rhetorically inconsistent between the senator’s CPAC and Cedar Rapids comments. Paul has long preferred to call himself a constitutional conservative rather than a libertarian and, as my Reason colleague Mike Riggs has pointed out, he has never actually embraced pot legalization, even at the state level. Instead, Paul “wants to keep everything illegal, but institute gentler penalties.” With gay marriage, devolving the decision to the state level is consistent with Paul’s orientation toward federalism (though strikingly at odds with his introduction of the Life at Conception Act, which would ban abortions at the federal level).
However technically accurate or defensible, such distinctions are far too Jesuitical to hang a presidential run on—or to revive a party that’s near-death. That’s especially true when dealing with such detail-oriented constituencies as evangelical Christians and libertarians. It’s far more likely that if Paul continues to send significantly different messages to different audiences, he will end up alienating all his possible supporters.
One way or another, we’ll be finding out. Paul is set to talk to libertarian-leaning New Hampshire residents later this month and then will be heading to the evangelical hotbed of South Carolina as he continues to test the waters for 2016.
If he’s serious about scraping the moss off the Republican Party, he needs to boldly defend his most contrarian, libertarian positions rather than temper his comments based on his speaking venue.
The reason why his filibuster became a global phenomenon—the hashtag #StandwithRand dominated Twitter for hours—was precisely because it was principled, unequivocal, and immensely appealing to people “who simply seek to live free.” What’s not to love about a political gesture that drew gushing support from Code Pink (“thanks for filibustering John Brennan! Love”) and Rush Limbaugh (“The new kids in town captivated the nation talking to them about freedom”) and unhinged opprobrium from Lawrence O’Donnell (“Rand Paul is a ridiculous, sick, paranoid messenger”) and John McCain (“it’s always the wacko birds on the right and the left that get the media megaphone”)?
Paul’s speech at CPAC was all the more powerful for being delivered at such a hoary old venue. The same was true for his major foreign-policy speech, “Containment and Radical Islam,” which he delivered at the Heritage Foundation in February. Speaking at a institution synonymous with stale Republicanism and that insists the government devote a fixed percentage of the federal budget to defense spending independent of actual military threats, Paul laid out a case for why “a more restrained foreign policy is the true conservative foreign policy” and why the Department of Defense must live within the constraints of “fiscal discipline.” Whatever its faults, Paul’s recent address and question-and-answer session about the GOP and race at Howard University was unmistakably a good-faith effort to start a rapprochement with constituencies long ignored, if not actively repudiated, by the Party of Lincoln.
The great mystery of recent elections, including last fall’s, isn’t why Barack Obama won reelection despite a terrible economy and a feckless foreign policy. It’s why the Republicans—ostensibly the party of smaller government and the champion of individual liberty—ever lose elections. According to Gallup, for the last decade, a sizable majority of Americans “think the government is doing too much,” and half see themselves as economic conservatives. If the GOP is losing elections, it’s precisely because, as Paul put it at CPAC, the party “is encumbered by an inconsistent approach to freedom.” Independent voters are generally turned off by a party that seems fixated on yesterday’s social mores. Growing majorities of Americans are totally fine with legal pot and gay marriage; fully 80 percent of us believe that abortion should be legal under some circumstances, with 61 percent saying it should be unrestricted in the first trimester of pregnancy. Similarly large chunks of voters are turned off by crony capitalism, industry-specific bailouts, the president’s top-down health-care plan, a reckless disregard for civil liberties, and a foreign policy that seems largely indistinguishable from that of George W. Bush.
In short, Americans seem more primed than ever to give a long look at a Rand Paul Republican Party that “embrace[s] liberty in both the economic and the personal sphere.” It’ll be a weird—and unfortunate—sort of irony if Rand Paul turns out to be one of the few people left in America not fully comfortable with his own message.