Strange Bedfellows

How Did Rand Paul Become a Liberal Hero?

He’s from the far corner of the right, but he’s to the left of most of the Democratic Party on key progressive issues like war, drug policy, and over-incarceration. Liberals tell David Freedlander why they’re embracing the Tea Party darling.

He came to Washington railing against the party establishment. Once in the Senate, he became one of that body’s foremost critics of war and of increased military spending. He drew national attention for his defense of civil liberties. His use of the real, live, stand-up-and-shout-them-down filibuster took an axe to moribund, genteel traditions of the upper chamber of Congress.  He called for the restoration of the voting rights of felons, a little-remarked-upon issue except to civil rights activists, but one that could tip the balance of electoral politics in key states. He even is pushing for legalized hemp.

Is this liberal hero Bernie Sanders, the socialist from Vermont? Of course not. This lefty hero is Rand Paul, the Republican from Kentucky, who during a period of liberal retreat has somehow emerged as one of the nation’s most articulate defenders of progressive values. Look no further than a Wednesday earlier this month, when Paul testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee against mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders. Citing statistics that showed that young minority males were far more likely to face longer prison sentences than other groups, he sounded like a class warrior: “Why are the arrest rates so lopsided? Because it is easier to go into urban areas and make arrests than suburban areas.”

And it has won Paul some plaudits in unlikely corners, with stalwart liberals like Medea Benjamin writing that Paul should be commended for his anti-war stance. The liberal website has regularly praised Paul’s stances, and the site’s founder, New Left journalist Robert Scheer, has regularly sung the Kentucky Senator’s praises on a nationally syndicated radio show he appears on.

“I have a lot of problems with Rand Paul,” said David Sirota, the liberal author and blogger, citing his positions on the economy and on a woman’s right to choose. “But I think that on issues concerning national security and the domestic security state he is as right as anybody in the Congress—and there aren’t a lot of people in Congress who are good on those issues.”

Paul appears to be an all-but-announced candidate for president, but as the events of the last few weeks have shown, should he run, he would represent a new kind of figure on the American political landscape. When Democrats have found reason to praise Republicans in the context of a presidential race, it is usually because they break by a matter of degree with GOP orthodoxy—think Mike Huckabee’s calls for a more humane immigration system in 2008--or because a candidate has been willing to criticize the Republican establishment—think Chris Christie this time around.

Paul represents a whole other phenomenon. Coming from the furthest right reaches of the conservative movement on regulatory and economic issues, he is to the left of even most Democrats in Congress on issues of national security and surveillance. And if you are a liberal yearning for a Democrat to speak out against the War on Drugs or the voting rights of felons, Paul is, at the moment at least, the only candidate you've got.

For liberals, the question of how to square this circle is a vexing one.

“It’s boutique progressivism,” said Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont and the liberal standard bearer in the 2004 primaries. “To use the word ‘progressivism’ and Rand Paul together, it's an oxymoron. It’s like saying ‘Fox’ and ‘News.’”

Dean said that some of Paul’s stances could point the way forward for the GOP if the Republicans hope to win over voters under 35, but did not think that very many of his own fellow travelers would be much persuaded.

“You can’t be a progressive and turn your backs on women, you can’t be a progressive and turn your back on immigrants,” he said. “How is it progressive to stand up for the voting rights of felons but stand by while the Supreme Court destroys the Voting Rights Act?

“I have always thought Libertarians have a screw loose, anyway,” Dean added.

The notion of a Paul receiving plaudits from progressives is not new. Rand’s father Ron convinced many anti-war Democrats to join his crusade in his presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012. The son, though, is different, speaking out not just on defense but on issues of criminal justice, and getting glowing mainstream media attention in the process.

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For liberals though, the question becomes: why is someone from the other team speaking out on our issues when our guys are silent?

“A lot of Democrats have tended to be less than courageous on a lot of those issues,” said Michael Lux, co-founder of Progressive Strategies, a political consulting firm. “I think it is great that he is somebody who has a clear position on those issues, and I admire him for advocating strongly for it even if it I don’t agree with him on 98 percent of his economic ideas.”

Dean, who ran for president pledging to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic party, concurs.

“I welcome his willingness—maybe he can give Democrats the courage to stand up for what’s right,” he said. “He can certainly be a good co-sponsor for legislation.”

Sirota said he has been slammed in the progressive blogosphere for suggesting as much.

“I think that as progressives we should say that what Rand Paul represents is encouraging for the entire state of American politics. He at least suggests the possibility of a transpartisan coalition around what I consider to be extremely important issues. You have to take strange bedfellows where they are.”