“On the Democrat side, we have a proposal to cut about $5 billion to $6 billion for the rest of the year. To put that in perspective, we borrow $4 billion a day. So the other side is offering up cuts equal to one day’s borrowing.…Now, on our side of the aisle, I think we have done more, the cuts are more significant, but they also pale in comparison to the problem. If we were to adopt the president’s approach, we would have a $1.65 trillion deficit in one year. If we were to adopt our approach, we’re going to have a $1.55 trillion deficit in one year. I think both approaches do not significantly alter or delay the crisis that’s coming.…I recently proposed $500 billion in cuts, and when I went home and spoke to the people of my state, spoke to those from the Tea Party, they said $500 billion is not enough. And they’re right. $500 billion is a third of one year’s problem. Up here that’s way too bold, but it’s not even enough.” —Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on the Senate floor, March 9, 2011
It’s getting hard to remember now, but there was a time for a little while there when a fair number of libertarians were worried that Rand Paul was shaping up to be another Beltway sellout. There was his post-primary rapprochement with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the powerful and seemingly eternal Senate minority leader who had hand-picked Paul’s opponent to replace retiring Sen. Jim Bunning. There was Paul’s odd August 2010 USA Today op-ed piece, titled “Rand Paul, Libertarian? Not Quite,” which smacked of a self-conscious distancing from the word. And then there was his pre-election meeting in Washington, D.C., with representatives of the neoconservative establishment that had tried to kneecap him in the Republican primary, including Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol, American Enterprise Institute scholar Thomas Donnelly, and former Iraq Provisional Authority spokesman Dan Senor.
“Well, yes, it looks like Rand Paul is indeed a neocon stooge,” Antiwar.com columnist Justin Raimondo wrote after that meeting. “The great danger is that the election of Rand Paul to the US Senate will change the ideological complexion of libertarianism, as it is perceived by the public, and quite possibly succeed in derailing the ongoing work of his father and the Campaign for Liberty in challenging the neocons’ hegemony in the GOP when it comes to foreign policy.”
Raimondo’s fears may have been stated hyperbolically, but they were far from marginal among the supporters of limited government, particularly the fans of Paul’s famous father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). At online forums such as The Daily Paul, in the comments section of reason’s blog Hit & Run, in libertarian-friendly D.C. watering holes, there was a persistent murmur of doubt: Was Rand Paul riding his father’s coattails (and national fundraising network) to a victory that would produce just another foreign policy belligerent and libertarian squish on Capitol Hill?
Those fears began evaporating into thin air in the span of seven minutes on election night. That’s how long it took Sen. Paul to deliver his victory speech, a piece of oratory notable for its full-throated defense of free markets and limited government—and for not once mentioning the word Republican.
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“Tonight there’s a Tea Party tidal wave,” Paul said at the outset of his remarks. “It’s a message that I will carry with me on day one. It’s a message of fiscal sanity. It’s a message of limited—limited—constitutional government and balanced budgets.…America is exceptional, but it is not inherently so.…America will remain great if and when we understand…that government cannot create prosperity.…Do we wish to live free, or be enslaved by debt? Do we believe in the individual, or do we believe in the state? Thomas Jefferson wrote that government is best that governs least. Likewise freedom is best when enjoyed by the most.”
The next day, all across the cable news outlets, the most prominent Tea Party politician in America was confidently doing the unthinkable: explaining why his Republican Party, at long last, needed to get behind cutting military spending, just as surely as Democrats needed to cut domestic spending (a one-two formulation Paul has used in just about every public appearance since election night). Within four months, Paul’s heretical ideas had gained enough traction to recruit other Republican senators, including Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Mike Crapo of Idaho, and a half-dozen others.
Even while being sworn in, Paul gave notice that the most radical of the budget-cutting notions being floated by the new GOP hotheads in the House of Representatives—totaling $61 billion, maybe even $100 billion this fiscal year—were utterly inadequate to the gravity of America’s crisis. “In January alone I will introduce a one-year, $500 billion spending cut, along with a balanced-budget amendment,” he promised. He delivered on that promise three weeks later, with a bill that proposed ending the Departments of Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development, slashing the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Transportation, and eliminating all foreign aid, including aid to Israel.
Having outflanked the most radical of the incoming Tea Party freshmen in the less temperate House, Paul then—by deed, not word —made a mockery of the much-ballyhooed “roadmap” of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to tackle entitlements and balance the federal budget by 2063. Paul instead wants to balance the budget in five years. In March he unveiled a plan to reduce government spending by $4 trillion relative to President Barack Obama’s long-term budget proposal by ratcheting back spending to fiscal year 2008 levels, eliminating the Department of Commerce (in addition to the ones above), capping and block-granting Medicaid payments to the states, and enacting bold reforms on entitlement spending.
“Entitlements will consume the entire budget within a few decades,” Paul writes in his sprightly new book The Tea Party Goes to Washington. “Entitlements plus interest will consume the entire budget in a little over a decade. Is it any wonder that [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman] Admiral [Mike] Mullen, [Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates and others have said that the biggest threat to our national security is our debt?” What about Rep. Ryan’s plan? Paul is blunt: “We don’t have six decades to fix entitlements.”
Unlike any other national politician of recent vintage, Rand Paul has the cheerful confidence that confronting entitlements is a political winner. “I don’t think we lost many votes because of my willingness to discuss entitlement reform,” he writes.
Judging by the reactions to his own plans, he may be onto something. Until last November’s elections, the Tea Party “kingmaker” in the U.S. Senate, by acclamation, was Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). He was the one who defined the most radical edge of the fiscal agenda in the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body. But in Rand Paul’s few short months in office, he has seized that distinction. Unveiling his five-year balanced budget and entitlement reform plan, Paul was front and center, and DeMint was at his side.