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So far Paul is doing what he needs to do to win the primary: raising money from his father’s ardent libertarian backers nationwide while winning over mainstream conservative Republicans in Kentucky. The libertarian Republican activist Eric Dondero, a disgruntled former staffer of the elder Paul who contemplated a primary challenge against him, praises Rand Paul as a “pro-defense libertarian.” At the same time, dovish Ludwig von Mises Institute President Lew Rockwell is politely supportive—though not effusive—on his website, despite regarding much of the Republican primary electorate to which Rand must appeal as “red-state fascists.”
“It’s just a constellation of positive things all going on at once,” says Paul. The first is that the emphasis has been shifted from foreign policy, where Paulite views are at odds with those of the GOP rank and file, to domestic affairs, where Paul can run as a Republican who really means what he says. The Tea Party movement has oriented conservative activism toward protesting the size and cost of government. “People sometimes say to me, ‘Aren’t your views a little extreme?’ ” Paul recounts. “I say to them that I don’t think a balanced budget is extreme. I think a $2 trillion deficit, now that’s extreme.”
Not everyone is happy, however. Websites like Too Kooky for Kentucky continue to attack Paul as a pot-smoking, terrorist-sympathizing, abortion-supporting, radical libertarian. Nor are all national conservative commentators convinced that Rand Paul is one of them. The right-wing columnist Debbie Schlussel, who excoriated “the anti-war, anti-Gitmo, pan-terrorist, 9/11 conspiracy theory, pro-Iran, and anti-American views of the Paul son,” says the candidate is “equally nutty” as his father.
The younger Paul is clearly aware of the damage such attacks can do, especially since he is running in a closed Republican primary. So he has taken steps to avoid some of the controversies that enmeshed his father. Rand Paul energetically distances himself from racists, anti-Semites, and 9/11 truthers. When former campaign coordinator Chris Hightower was linked to a MySpace page that contained racist remarks and alleged that America had provoked the 9/11 attacks, he was promptly sacked. His father’s presidential campaign, by contrast, never held anyone accountable for some bigoted statements that appeared two decades ago in one of his newsletters, The Ron Paul Survival Report.
Rand Paul also steps carefully when discussing blowback from American military intervention. He and his father were interviewed jointly by a Kentucky television station before the Rally for the Republicans, and both were asked about whether America was to blame for 9/11. The elder Paul gave the kind of meandering answer that would have Rudy Giuliani straining at the leash to pounce, emphasizing that “policies have consequences, ideas have consequences.”
Rand Paul framed his response much differently. “What I would say is, the most important thing to say from the beginning is that if someone murders your family, it is their fault,” the son said. “We say these people attacked us, it is their fault.…We are not to blame for people attacking us.” He then proceeded to make some of the same points his father made.
Some of these stylistic differences irk libertarians who prefer Ron Paul’s less conciliatory approach. One of Rand Paul’s staffers, Christie Gillespie, resigned from the campaign after being ordered to refrain from criticizing Mitch McConnell and other Republicans. But it is the substantive differences between the Pauls that tend to bother libertarians more.
Unlike his father, Rand opposes civilian trials for terror detainees. He would “ultimately” close Gitmo, but not until it is determined what will be done with the prisoners, who he does not want sent to the United States. In their joint interview, when the elder Paul expressed his opposition to trying suspected terrorists before military tribunals, Rand quipped, “Now my father has only been here for 20 minutes, and you’re already making me disagree with him. We haven’t even had a chance to say hello.” Ron Paul responded, “I think Rand just proved that he’s his own man and can think for himself.”
Some libertarians fear the noninterventionist message is being lost entirely. David Adams cautions that “it is an oversimplification to call [Rand Paul] an anti-war candidate,” even though he would not have voted for the Iraq war. The younger Paul is still undecided about what our policy should be in Afghanistan. “Rand is terrified of the foreign policy his father has supported,” opines a libertarian activist who says he was rebuffed when he tried to arrange a meeting between Rand Paul staffers and J Street, an organization that bills itself as a more dovish Israel lobby.
Yet many such libertarians remain reluctant to criticize the younger Paul publicly. “All of the signs I’ve seen so far are bad,” the activist says. “And politicians usually get worse rather than better once they’re in office. But we’re still trying to be hopeful.” Another professional libertarian declares that the candidate will “either be exactly the kind of thing we need, someone who is reliable on the most important things but willing to be tactical when he needs to be, or he’ll turn out to be so pragmatic that he’s indistinguishable from other Republicans.”
“I’ve heard from people who love my dad who don’t like some of the positions I’ve taken,” Rand Paul says. “Well, I love my dad too, but I don’t agree with him all of the time.” The younger Paul sees his strategy as part of bringing small-government ideas into the mainstream. “I’m trying to emphasize our similarities, not our differences,” he says. “I am not trying to splinter off into a smaller and smaller group. I am trying to create a force than can win an election.”
The delicate balance that Rand Paul is trying to strike is a difficult one. Ron Paul’s campaign in the 2008 primaries was unable to pull it off, if it even tried. Republican congressman turned Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr tried and failed even more spectacularly during the general election. But there is one Republican success story in recent history when it comes to the strategy of making anti-interventionist politics palatable to interventionist conservatives. His name is Ron Paul.
When Ron decided to return to Congress in 1996, the national Republican leadership had a different idea: They persuaded Democratic congressman Greg Laughlin to switch parties and run for re-election in his Texas district as a Republican. Paul had to challenge Laughlin in the primary. Former President George H.W. Bush, then-Gov. George W. Bush, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich all enthusiastically supported Laughlin. “I did not see a single Dallas Cowboys fan boo Deion Sanders,” Gingrich said as he tried to persuade Texans to embrace another team switcher.
Ron Paul tapped a national army of libertarians to finance his campaign, raising more than 60 percent of his funds outside the district. But he also pitched himself as the true conservative—his lifetime American Conservative Union rating at the time was 91 out of 100 to Laughlin’s middling 56—by touting his early ties to Reagan and finessing his differences with mainstream Republicans.