In what Politico called "the first clear statewide victory by the disparate national tea party movement," Rand Paul, a Bowling Green ophthalmologist and the son of libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), smashed his opponent Trey Grayson in the Kentucky Republican primary for November's Senate race.
Grayson was the chosen favorite of the party establishment, with supporters ranging from Kentucky's own Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to neocon foreign policy mavens Rudolph Giuliani and former Vice President Dick Cheney. None of that meant much to Kentucky Republicans, however, who, in a low-turnout election, gave Paul 59 percent of their vote.
In his victory, Paul won not only the enthusiasm of Kentucky GOP primary voters. He was a national Tea Party favorite, and also beloved by a widespread libertarian audience, with 77 percent of his fundraising coming from outside Kentucky. Conservative activist leaders from old-school right-winger Richard Viguerie to the more modern Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks were over the moon about Paul's victory in interviews this week, arguing that his victory meant good times for the small-government cause in the months and years to come.
Paul's victory, Kibbe thinks, marks a burgeoning "small 'l' libertarian takeover of the old party establishment that is both structural and philosophical. We no longer need the old fashioned party mechanism to turn out votes in primaries, so the McConnell endorsement [for Grayson] didn't matter, all the establishment types who endorsed him didn't matter. What matters are activists on the ground who get information from multiple sources. It's a perfectly Hayekian decentralized movement that enabled local knowledge about candidates to spread. And I think it's the tip of the iceberg of what is coming."
Even if he doesn't presage a major change in how electoral party politics works, Paul's appeal goes beyond even state-shrinkers of any inclination. He inspired lefty journalist Robert Scheer to cheer Paul—in language that ought to appeal to principled progressives of all sorts—as a "principled libertarian in the mold of his father, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and we need more of that impulse in the Congress. What's wrong with cutting back big government that mostly exists to serve the interests of big corporations? Surely it would be better if that challenge came from populist progressives of the left, in the Bernie Sanders mold, but this is Kentucky we're talking about." At the same time, and equally encouraging for Paul's bonafides as a political good guy, he earned the obloquy of staunch defenders of the Radical Middle: From the right side, David Frum found Paul's victory "depressing" and "ominous," while on the left, Matthew Yglesias dubbed Paul, without explanation, a "lunatic."
Paul deliberately eschewed the libertarian label, calling himself a "constitutional conservative" instead. He won an endorsement from Sarah Palin and from Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. He even ran ads identifying Iran as a threat (after being accused of denying it), and told Bill O'Reilly at length that we should not take nuclear attack off the table as an option in dealing with them. And despite the reservations expressed by one long-time libertarian movement hand that Rand Paul might be more "Christian conservative" than all-around fan of small government, Politico identified two points where Rand was certainly not a full-bore populist-conservative: "his hesitation over building a fence along the southern border with Mexico and over endorsing a federal ban on same-sex marriage." (But he also strongly believes in a government role in protecting the life of fetuses.)
More than anything, as detailed smartly by David Weigel at the Washington Post, Rand Paul was both a careful (in his reluctance to turn off any sizable GOP constituency) and a remarkably diligent candidate, which means that other candidates who don a roughly libertarian Tea Party mantle should not expect a similar result.
But while radical libertarians (doubtless not a huge Kentucky constituency) and hardcore populist Tea Partiers might each have reasons to regret aspects of Rand Paul's message, it's hard to imagine that either constituency is going to have a chance to vote for a more salubrious senator. In Rand Paul's America, as the Washington Post summed up:
the federal government would no longer hand out subsidies to support farmers. The retirement age would be raised to make Social Security solvent. Senators could only serve 12 years in office. Congress would have to delay voting one day for every 20 pages of text in a bill so the public would have time to read and understand it. A section of every law passed would have to include an explanation of what part of the Constitution empowers Congress to act on the issue.
Members of Congress could not pick out parks or roads in their districts to fund, according to Paul's platform. Congress would have to balance its budget every year, a move that could result in billions of dollars in cuts to politically popular programs. Lawmakers would simply send money to states for education, instead of imposing a variety of rules on schools through the U.S. Department of Education, which Paul wants to eliminate.
Still, many libertarians are finding it hard to love Rand Paul as much as they love his father. Among radical noninterventionist libertarians there's a strong fear that if the anti-state energies of today's Tea Party activists and other dissatisfied voters becomes unmoored from a principled noninterventionist foreign policy, then a great opportunity will be lost.
Not everyone shares this fear. Phil Blumel, president of U.S. Term Limits (and an old college friend of mine), who has known Rand since the two of them worked on Ron Paul's 1988 Libertarian Party presidential campaign, is confident that Rand shares at the very least a general understanding that the U.S. military ought not to be running the world, even if Rand doesn't exactly share his father's passion on the subject. As Blumel concludes, "What U.S. Senator is as libertarian as Rand Paul?"
But as just one senator out of 100, what Rand might actually accomplish is likely to be less important than what he is perceived to be standing for. Will his opponents be able to saddle him with his radical libertarian position that private discrimination shouldn't be the government's business? Will he merely be framed as an apostle of "anger," or will he be seen as representing the only sensible path forward to reform a government tht is spending way beyond its means?
That he won the primary is, in and of itself, encouraging. That he won as the Tea Party outsider against the likes of McConnell and Cheney is even more heartening. But we won't know how encouraging Paul's rise really is until we see if he functions as a leader or inspiration for dozens more candidates and for a mad-at-government movement whose dominant concerns remain up for grabs.