State of the Union: Rand Paul Brings Libertarianism to the GOP

Rand Paul's State of the Union response sets the stage for 2016.

The official Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address last night was from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. But the Republican Party is a house (partially) divided now, with a self-conscious rebel wing, and the semi-official “Tea Party” response came from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Paul won his Senate seat on a Tea Party anti-establishment wave in 2010, defeating establishment favorite Trey Grayson for the GOP nomination. (He wrote about it in his campaign memoir The Tea Party Goes to Washington.)

Paul has stayed a leader of sorts for the inchoate, and possibly fading in importance Tea Party movement. National Review reports that even parts of that far-flung movement not affiliated with the Tea Party Express organization, who sponsored Paul’s State of the Union response, approved of the senator inhabiting that role (though there is much Tea Party love for Rubio as well).

Obama’s address itself was unsurprising. After crowing about America’s alleged ruddy economic health, he promised huge government-induced changes in America that he, for some reason, is confident won’t cost a dime (or will be paid for from new tax revenue). He wants preschool for all and high schools that will guarantee jobs when our kids escape them, while making sure college is also more widely available—and also cheaper. He wants to restrict national carbon production while pursuing the chimera of energy independence, build new bridges or fix old ones, and create high-speed rail (of course).

He says we will pull back on some old military commitments while asserting the world is still essentially ours to manage. And he offered some symbolic, pointless, but still annoying new gun control laws—though he wasn’t even forceful enough with the bully pulpit to insist Congress should vote for them, merely that they should vote on them.

It was characteristic Obama: expansive in its vision of what government had already accomplished and what it could do, hat-tipping to limits merely for rhetorical effect. He was unconcerned about what anything costs, mostly through sheer assertion that his dreams wouldn’t cost anything. He talked about “the economy” a lot, but his thinking was anti-economic to the core: barely mindful of constraints or choices or tradeoffs, refusing to recognize how incentives (to create jobs), supply (of jobs), demand (for employees), or prices (of education or healthcare) are warped by the government actions he insists on.

In his official response, Rubio, beloved change agent for the GOP establishment, stressed his immigrant background while not talking much about immigration policy (an area in which he is softer than the most tough-on-illegals side of the Republican Party while still supporting the creation of a national identification card with an “employee verification system” to ensure that illegals don’t get hired—and ensure that all Americans can never escape the classic totalitarian “your papers please” nightmare if they want to earn a living). Rubio rambled through a mishmash of pro-growth, anti-tax, pro-domestic drilling, anti-moral breakdown vagueness—a barely-warm stew of modern Republicanism, minus any truly serious thinking about what government is—and isn’t—for.

Like our president, Rubio condemned “false choices” and then elided very real ones: Medicare and Medicaid must keep taking care of the likes of his parents, yet will bankrupt us. We’ve got to stop violence but we can’t restrict Second Amendment rights. All that plus Rubio’s strange obsession with student aid for such a short speech—both his own (he just paid off his six-figure loan, congrats senator) and the idea that we must give more student aid for more varieties of education while hinting at a dark truth: that maybe all that debt for higher education isn’t always worth it.

And foreign policy? Stay strong, America, keep on spending and don’t change a thing! You can’t say Rubio isn’t a reasonable representation of what the modern Republican Party stands for and wants.

While The Washington Post recognized the competing Rubio and Paul speeches as round one in the 2016 GOP presidential nomination battle, Paul told CNN, “I won’t say anything on there that necessarily is like Marco Rubio is wrong….You know, I don’t always agree, but the thing is this isn’t about he and I.”

There is indeed still plenty of time for Paul to make a case for himself and his vision of a more libertarian Republicanism; it's not quite yet the moment to start specific fights with colleagues (though Paul does have a winning ability to stress that Republicans are also guilty in busting America’s budget and violating Americans’ rights without naming names).

Paul started by hitting some of the same big picture “America as the land of opportunity” notes as Rubio. He stressed an anti-tax, anti-spending, anti-Washington fecklessness (and pro-Balanced Budget Amendment) outsider message, defending the sequester—which he argues doesn’t even qualify as a spending cut—and calling for Congress to force itself to read its own bills, or get booted by an angry populace.

On immigration, Paul took the libertarian tack that “we must be the party that embraces the immigrant who wants to come to America for a better future. We must be the party who sees immigrants as assets, not liabilities. We must be the party that says, 'If you want to work, if you want to become an American, we welcome you.'” That’s not something most Tea Partiers want to hear, and it was brave of Paul to take this opportunity to say it.

Business Insider spun Paul’s immigration comments as a “surprising message for the libertarian firebrand,” hinting that the usually rebellious Paul is here going along with party centrist Rubio. But this was no deliberate reach to the center, no betrayal of what Paul is, but just Paul being as libertarian as he actually is on immigration. He is not simply some super-right-wing conservative Tea Party guy—as The Washington Post also misinterpreted him, eliding his stances on things like foreign policy and drug policy—Rand Paul is in many respects his father Ron Paul’s son.

Paul didn’t have a lot to say in his State of the Union response about foreign policy—curious, as he just last week made a significant speech on the topic to the Heritage Foundation—and what little he did say hit jingoistic notes of “no foreign aid for American-haters!” while also admitting that even the Pentagon budget has “waste and fraud.” That sort of thing doesn’t alarm most voters, but neither will it get the American populace doing the mission rethink that common sense, the Constitution, and fiscal responsibility demand—a rethink Paul began laying out in earnest last week at Heritage.

Paul is still trying to build a constituency and movement for his return to containment in a world of Islamic terror and possible Iranian nukes; it is not surprising he didn’t see this mass public appearance as the place for that sort of wonky policy argument. As he told me in an interview last week after that speech, he knows that there is not yet a full community of foreign policy thinkers like him to help sell or conceptualize the full contours of what containment means in a fight against a non-superpower. He's just sure it can be cheaper than it was in the Cold War.

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  • jeffersonianideal||

    Not a bad libertarian response for a non-libertarian. We may be witnessing the further political education of Rand Paul. Hopefully, the Kentucky Senator is more serious about a smaller, less intrusive government than Ronald Reagan was. I am a bit wary however, considering his dependency upon another government duck and cover routine known as a “balanced budget amendment”.

  • Peter Brown||

    Rand Paul nails it on spending but needs to decide where he stands ideologically. Will he stand up and become a libertarian like his father or will he attempt to mesh libertarianism with failed Republican ideology? You cannot please everyone in the Republican Party, and you are doing something wrong if you are. I am cheered by the attention Rand Paul has been getting. I just wish he would plant both of his feet in the libertarian camp instead of sticking just one foot inside.

  • Robert||

    Maybe it's because Rand is used to looking people in the eye, while Ron is used to looking....

    Sorry, couldn't resist. I have all the respect in the world for obs-gyns and especially the Drs. Paul, but it was too juicy a metaphor to pass up. Daddy used to tell doctor jokes all the time.

  • Capt Ace Rimmer||

    It was a good joke.

  • Anomalous||

    +1

  • Robert||

    But seriously, folks, I always thought a "Dr. No" in Congress doesn't accomplish much, while being a coalition-builder -- which of course means you have to give a little to get a little, and that sincerity isn't the virtue it's cracked up to be, especially in politics -- accomplishes much more.

    (Rand's an eye doctor, his father a gynecologist, get it?)

  • Nuked||

    This is something that I think Ron Paul diehard's need to realize. As much as I love Ron, Rand seems to be more politically intelligent. Rand's approach will lead to a lot more libertarian ideas being accepted because he is more willing to bend slightly to get along.

    Ron has done a great job inspiring people to look at government differently (he pulled me into the non-aggression principle fold), but he did lack in ability to build a coalition to make things happen in congress (even if he was dealing with a 99% statist congress).

  • jacob||

    Ron was pretty darn politically savvy. The guy amasssed enemies in his decades long political careeer, mainly from his OWN party, and was able to stay relevant till the end.

    But I get your point, and I'm a HUGE Rand Paul fan.

  • flashgordon||

    Agree that Rand Paul looks like a libertarian who could be the Republican nominee for pres or vp. I have 2 bits of feedback for Mr. Paul. One (and Rubio did this too) don't say we are spending a trillion we don't have a year. Most listeners don't know that it's 1 trill out of 3 trill (which I think it is) or 100 trill out of 99 trill. Say we are spending a dollar for every 60 cents we are collecting in taxes and that that is unsustainable. Also attack Obama on tax rates. Say "We think the Bush era rates resulted in half the people in the country paying no income taxes at all and 60% of the taxes being paid by the top 5%. We think that's a good place to be." It's not easy fighting a demogogue who's trying to make anyone who opposes him as a person who is too friendly to the rich. You have to use every good argument you have.

  • DrAwkward||

    I keep using the '$0.40 of every dollar spent is borrowed' in conversations. I think it's closer to $0.47 now. Hard to keep up...

  • ||

    You're relying on the electorate's ability to do math.

  • entropy||

    His State of the Union response exemplified that Paul has got the trickiest task any politician faces in modern America: selling a coherent set of positions about government, not merely hitting simple cultural or attitudinal signifiers for a pre-existing mass constituency

    That's his hurdle, but I think that's the wrong focus. LIV's don't give a shit about policy and they're at least half the voters if not more depending on how high you set the bar. You won't find many with green eyeshades.

    Maybe if someone could hit a set of simple cultural and attitudinal signifiers for pre-existing factional constituencies in such a way as to form a new mass coalition. And then, completely independent of that, hopefully actually do something mildly libertarian with policy. Fucking selling it, people ain't buying policies, they buy gratifying emotional manipulation from their tv. They just want you to make them love some idea of America, that they can support to feel like they're involved. They don't actually even want dick-all to do with policy and probably shouldn't be allowed anywhere near it. You ask them what they actually want to do, they'll say "I just think we need to be realistic" or, like OWS, "I just want my message to be heard".

    What is his message? He does not know. He is bitching because he wants someone to tell him what his message is, so he can say "Fuck yeah! That one's it!" and pat himself on the back.

  • entropy||

    This policy shit is actually not that hard. In broad terms, anyone who knows dick at all about policy or cares, already knows what everything is, we know what policies libertarians want, what policies socialists want, what policies social cons want.

    But by and large, none of the politicians running on those things are anything quite like they claim to be. Except libertarian - primarily because we really haven't any politicians. Maybe a fluke and quirk or two.

    I don't know that anyone who gives a shit about a consistent foreign policy philosophy doesn't already know exactly what Paul is doing - signalling to the factions he will split the baby and arguing for a moderate or incremental move between neocons and libertarians.

  • H. Protagonist||

    Well, the attacks are already shaping. I've got a pro-union Ohio voter friend on Facebook who's trying to convince me that Rand Paul is an out-and-out racist.

    Tired and predictable, but given the average voter's tolerance for nuanced discussions of the unintended consequences of Title II of the Civil Rights Act, the "He just hates black people!" argument might go a long way...

  • mr simple||

    You know, I don’t always agree, but the thing is this isn’t about he and I.

    I think you mean "him and me", Senator. I would think a man who is a doctor and senator would know the difference between a subject and object.

  • Max||

    Not again! Rand is an avowed anti-libertarian, so how is he bringing libertarianism to the GOP?

  • BeamMeUp||

    Rand Paul supports the "Life at Conception" amendment (it's on his Senate web page under Issues). Not only would this lead to the banning of abortion but it could open to door to massive regulation of women's private lives for the so-called defense of fetuses, maybe even the banning of all forms of birth control. This smacks of big government. Usually the anti-choice crowd doesn't talk about how their agenda would affect a woman's perosnal life.

    With Rand Paul's position on this issue, I don't see him as a social libertarian.

  • Skomoroh||

    If you truly believe that life starts at conception then his is the libertarian position and yours is not.

  • BeamMeUp||

    Are you saying privacy from government intrusion is not a libertarian position? Are you saying that whatever Rand Paul says is the libertarian position and is never to be questioned?

  • DarrenM||

    Are you saying the use of government to protect the life of an individual against someone else is not a libertarian position? It's just 'government intrusion'? You sound like an anarchist.

  • BeamMeUp||

    Like I said, the anti-choice (aka "pro-life") crowd doesn't talk about how their agenda intrudes into a woman's personal life. Some of them are quite explicite in their dislike of the right of privacy from government.

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  • Thomas4||

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  • Gary T||

    In my anti-conspiracy mode, I would like to think that Rand Paul is artfully easing the Republican base into a more libertarian sensability, but not going too far right now, so that he can tease them along and when they start thinking rationally, they will think they were with him all along!
    The fact that he endorsed Romney went a long way in making the repubs think he is one of them.
    But I think like Stossel, he has to remain as a closet libertarian to continue to leverage his position in the GOP.
    When he has amassed enough power, BAM, he will come out of the closet as completely as Stossel did, and he will be in the best position to effortlessly libertarianize the GOP.

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