Rand Paul Is the New Compassionate Conservative

The Kentucky senator is diverging from his party on voting rights for felons—and increasingly he seems to be pushing George W. Bush’s favorite ism, with a libertarian twist.

Perhaps the last place a Republican political consultant would advise a potential presidential candidate to speak is in front of a lectern bearing an ACLU sign while several convicted felons sit nearby. But that didn’t stop Rand Paul, who spoke at an event Tuesday on Capitol Hill with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) to promote restoring voting rights for convicts.

In a brief speech before a panel moderated by Nicole Austin-Hillery of the liberal Brennan Center for Justice, the Kentucky senator and libertarian icon called the criminal justice system the “largest impediment to voting and employment in this country.” The U.S legal system, he said, has trapped many nonviolent felons in a place where they “can’t vote and can’t work.”

Paul touted the bill he has introduced to address the issue, the Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act of 2014, which he suggested took a more cautious approach than similar legislation sponsored by Democrats. Paul’s bill applies only to federal voting rights, not the ability to vote in state elections, and is limited to a class of nonviolent felons. So far, Paul’s only co-sponsor on the legislation is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. By contrast, a Democratic bill sponsored by Cardin is more expansive and applies to all felons. “Both are a step in the right direction,” Paul said Tuesday. “It just depends on how big a step you want to take.”

By pushing to change the law so that crimes now considered felonies would become misdemeanors and finding ways to allow convicted felons, specifically those who committed nonviolent crimes, to vote and apply for jobs, Paul is diverging from traditional Republican rhetoric on the issue. Since the 1960s, the GOP has run as the party of “law and order,” often using racially coded language to promote its anticrime bonafides. On Tuesday, however, Paul condemned the disproportionate impact the problems of the criminal justice system have had on minorities. The Kentucky Republican made clear he did not believe that disparity was created on purpose but instead because arresting those who are poorer, live in cities, and have less access to lawyers was easier.

Traditionally, the politics of enfranchising felons has fallen along partisan lines. Democrats want to expand the electorate, and Republicans want to restrict it. But Paul’s advocacy for allowing felons to vote seems to be based mostly on conscience. After all, there can’t be much political gain in appealing to a class of citizens who aren’t yet able to vote.

Still, Paul could realize some political gains from his advocacy. In addition to pleasing his libertarian base, which is skeptical of the drug war and distrustful of government, Paul’s efforts to help felons reintegrate into society could help appeal to evangelicals. And his efforts to reach out to minority communities helps moderate the image of a politician who was once mired in controversy over his skepticism about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and considered a Tea Party zealot.

Instead, the voting rights advocacy puts Paul in a unique position moving forward. Increasingly, the Kentucky Republican seems to be pushing a libertarian brand of compassionate conservatism—without the big-government trappings of the Bush era. His emphasis on issues such as felon voting and the plight of Christians in the Middle East is designed to resonate with evangelicals without alienating moderates. It’s not entirely clear what the ideology of a Rand Paul Republican would look like in 2016, but as Tuesday’s event shows, it certainly won’t look quite like the platform of any other politician.