At a prayer breakfast in Washington, D.C. on Thursday morning, Rand Paul practiced pandering. The senator from Kentucky will announce that he is running for president in less than two weeks, and it seems the pressure to be all things to all people is resulting in the breakdown of his political brand, with the latest example being his newly articulated position on marriage.
He conceded to the evangelical crowd, which included Dr. Jerry Johnson, CEO of the National Religious Broadcasters, that there is a "moral crisis in our country" and more specifically, "a moral crisis that allows people to think that there would be some sort of other marriage" in addition to heterosexual, or "traditional," marriage.
To solve the crisis, Paul called for a religious revival and lost himself.
"We need another Great Awakening with tent revivals of thousands of people saying 'reform or see what's going to happen if we don't reform,'" Paul said, adding that Washington has a responsibility to help, too. "There is a role for us trying to figure out a thing like marriage." After all, he said, "The First Amendment says keep government out of religion, not religion out of government."
Paul's position on gay marriage has long been to leave it up to the states and keep the federal government out of it.
In an interview with The Daily Beast's Editor-in-Chief John Avlon at SXSW earlier this month, Paul admitted he was a "traditionalist, born in 1963, okay. You know, marriage was between a man and a woman and still sort of a conservative position that I hold, personally."
As a lawmaker, however, he felt that "the law does have to treat people equally, though, and so the idea that the law can or should be neutral is something that I do find important."
When Paul acts or speaks inconsistently, his campaign responds by pretending like it did not happen.
"Senator Paul believes marriage is an issue that should be dealt with at the state level,” political adviser Doug Stafford told The Daily Beast. “Nothing about his position has changed." Stafford later added: "Senator Paul does not want his guns or his marriage registered in Washington. He has said this repeatedly and consistently. Marriage is not a federal issue. It is an issue for state and local governments to deal with."
Thursday's statement, then, would seem to suggest to anyone with eyes and ears and basic critical thinking skills that the Senator has had a change of heart.
Stafford did not respond to a request to clarify what Paul meant by "moral crisis" or who the "us" he was referring to when he said "there is a role for us trying to figure out a thing like marriage." But in the video of Paul's comment, obtained by CBN News' David Brody, it seems clear Paul is implying that the crisis can be averted with the help of both the federal government and the evangelical activist community. He says "The one thing i would say is—and this is given as free advice—don't always look to Washington. The moral crisis we have in our country, there is a role for us trying to figure out things like marriage, but theres also a moral crisis that allows people to think that there would be some sort of other marriage. and so um really there's a role outside and inside government…"
Asked again to explain Paul's apparent shift in his belief that the federal government should stay entirely out of the marriage issue, Stafford replied "No one should take anything Senator Paul has said previously or in this particular conversation to imply anything different or anything new: Marriage is not an issue for the federal government. It is a state issue."
Stafford did not elaborate on why no one should be under the impression that Paul meant what he said in this particular conversation with the evangelical breakfast-goers.
Paul did not gain admittance to the Senate by accident. Previously an ophthalmologist, Paul relied on a combination of the rise of the Tea Party and the political apparatus he inherited from his father, libertarian movement leader, former congressman and presidential candidate, to propel him into office in 2010.
Paul supporters will tell you they like him because he is different. Compared to someone like Ted Cruz, who arrives onstage looking like he has just climbed out of a vat of oil, speaking in tongues and promising everyone liberty and candy, Rand Paul, who talks slowly but thinks fast like Daria and isn't particularly good at shaking hands, is about as real as it gets.
But Paul keeps testing their patience. With the rise of ISIS, we learned that Paul's skepticism of military intervention was milder than he advertised. By signing the GOP's open letter to Iran, it became clear that the senator values political expediency to the degree that he will sign a document explicitly designed to do the opposite of what he claims he wants, which was to halt the nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and Iran - the very negotiations Paul claimed (and continues to claim) to be in favor of.
And, now, in the setting of an intimate gathering of evangelicals, Paul transforms from keep-the-government-out-of-it to a full-fledged gay marriage interventionist.
The statement seems at least in part a reaction to Cruz announcing his presidential candidacy and making a strong play for the evangelical vote. To succeed in the Republican primary, Paul knows he will need more than cult political celebrity; Paul will need the support of mainstream Republicans, which means selling out at least a little. Paul's gamble will be trying to appeal to the establishment conservatives who control the Republican nomination without alienating the libertarians who made him a contender in the first place.
This story has been updated to include additonal comment from Doug Stafford as well as context for those comments.