Rand Paul in GQ: A Nuanced Portrait of a Not-Entirely-Frightening Politician


I'm already hearing whispers especially from the antiwar libertarian hardcore that a strangely respectful and nuanced profile of the GOP Senate candidate from Kentucky via The New Republic's Jason Zengerle in GQ  is giving them all the more reason to dislike or fear him. Here's the money graf on that point:

Ron Paul, in addition to his extreme views on the federal government, has been a harsh critic of the Republican Party's "military adventurism," and in the past Rand has faithfully echoed his father's views. He opposed the war in Iraq, once characterized the September 11 attacks as "blowback for our foreign policy," and scoffed at the threat of Iranian nukes. And yet here he was in Washington, seeking out a secret meeting with some of the Ron Paul Revolutionaries' biggest bogeymen. At a private office in Dupont Circle, he talked foreign policy with Bill Kristol, Dan Senor, and Tom Donnelly, three prominent neocons who'd been part of an effort to defeat him during the primary. "He struck me as genuinely interested in trying to understand why people like us were so apoplectic," Senor says of their two-hour encounter. "He wanted to get educated about our problem with him. He wasn't confrontational, and he wasn't disagreeable. He didn't seem cemented in his views. He was really in absorption mode."

The following month, he met with officials from the powerful lobbying group AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), which has frequently clashed with Ron Paul over what the group views as his insufficient support of Israel. Paul, according to one person familiar with the AIPAC meeting, "told them what they wanted to hear: 'I'm more reasonable than my father on the things you care about.' He was very solicitous."

Unpromising indeed for those who love Rand's dad Ron's political bravery and sense on matters of foreign intervention. And I understand why that is infuriating to the extent that Rand is seen as some sort of gold standard for what "libertarian" or even "libertarian-leaning" is going to mean in American politics. But if you are just looking at him as a potential Senate candidate for the Republican Party, well, that means that maybe he'll be just as bad as every single other one of them on foreign policy. Disappointing, yes, but not infuriating.

More interestingly for the general "respectable framing" of Tea Party candidates (and as it's shaping up, and rightfully so, Rand is being framed far more as a Tea Party exemplar than a libertarian one) is how Zengerle, who one might have expected to flay the guy (he's the writer who broke and here repeats the one-day gossip tempest about some of Rand's college age silliness), both mostly goes out of his way to understand him, and even, as with the above stuff about his foreign-policy "normalization" in a Republican context, seems to be going out of his way to let potential Rand haters left and right have reason to relax about him.

His opening anecdote about Rand Paul being aloofly shunning around his fellow Republicans at a local fundraiser has to read admirably to all red-blooded Americans, I hope. Zengerle then spins Rand's primary victory, rightly, as being mostly about disgust with the regnant Republican establishment, another plus. Other examples from the piece that read like an implicit thumbs up to me:

there's a real worry within the power center of the GOP that Paul will take his seat and eventually throw all the happy party conformity into disarray. In July, Paul told the National Reviewthat he intends to form a "Tea Party caucus" in the Senate. "I think I will be part of a nucleus with Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn, who are unafraid to stand up," he said. "If we get another loud voice in there, like Mike Lee from Utah or Sharron Angle from Nevada, there will be a new nucleus."

And therein lies the problem with the Tea Party candidates. The more they become an electoral force, the more the Republican establishment has to cater to them, and the more vocal and disruptive to the party's actual agenda they'll potentially become. It's one thing to oppose Obama; it's another to oppose legislation and threaten relationships that have been central to how the GOP does business. Paul doesn't support the military spending most of his fellow Republicans slobber over. He doesn't support handing out big fat prescription-drug benefits to private insurance companies. He doesn't support the earmarks that Republican senators, especially McConnell, use to curry favor with voters back home. And in a chamber where arcane procedural rules make it possible for a single member to gum up the legislative works, the presence of just one rogue Republican—much less a whole Tea Party caucus of them—could be enough to make the Senate Republicans finally seem as undisciplined and dysfunctional as the Democrats.

Again, what sensible American doesn't say hoo-damn-ray to that? And even an example of very radical Tea Party type rhetoric–not from Rand himself, but which he is called on to defend or distance himself from–gets a dancey response from Zengerle that on the one hand assures his liberal readers he still thinks Rand's a bit loopy, yet also mostly helps the reader see that there is a thoughtful point about the nature of our current debt crisis and its possible aftermath at play:

Just fifteen minutes earlier the candidate whom Paul came out to support was likening the current Speaker of the House to a former Soviet dictator, so I ask if he thinks that's what the press might be referring to when they say the Tea Party is extreme. He leans forward and smiles. "Well, I think whether or not your analogies are over the top, whether you might extend an analogy farther than others might, is not something to be reviled. It's just an opinion, you know?"

He pauses for a moment, as if wondering whether he should say more, then gives in to the urge. "But I don't hear that and say, 'Oh, he's absolutely wrong.' I hear him and say that our country is slipping towards that, and there could be a time when we slip and lose a lot of our freedoms. I'll say things like that Ben Franklin statement: 'Those who give up their liberty for security will have neither.' I worry about a time when we would have chaos in our country and then a strong national leader would come along and say, 'Give me your liberty and I'll give you security.' Not that it's imminent or happening tomorrow or applies to any particular players on the stage, but there are historical examples."

Paul pauses again, although this time it's not out of any hesitation on his part; he's just making sure we're still with him. "In 1923, when they destroyed the currency, they elected Hitler. And so they elected somebody who vilified one group of people, but he promised them, 'I will give you security if you give me your liberty,' and they voted him in. And that's not to mean that anybody around is Hitler, but it's to mean that you don't want chaos in your country. And we could have chaos, not just because of the Democrats, but because the Democrats and the Republicans have all been spending us into oblivion. And having a massive debt runs the risk of chaos at some point. Not tomorrow, maybe not next week—I mean, I can't even predict the stock market six months from now. But I think that a country is in danger that spends beyond its means and lives beyond its means. And I don't ever say it started with President Obama. I think it started long ago."

It's an incredible performance, one that begins with a gentle distancing from a loony analogy before reframing the analogy to make it seem less loony, then introducing a new analogy that isn't just loony, it's repugnant, but that also, as the analogy gets fleshed out in greater detail, begins to reveal itself as conforming to a certain logic that might be worthy of debate—all before ending on a bipartisan, pox-on-both-their-houses note that makes it clear that no, he was not comparing Obama to Hitler.

That radical point–about the very dreadful things we historically know can happen when currency and debt problems explode–is one it will behoove libertarian and small-government thinkers to make, with nuance and intelligence, from now until our debt and currency problems seem on the way to a solution. Good for Rand for trying to do it–and good for Zengerle for not totally tearing him apart for doing so.

Zengerle even wraps up with an actual open acknowledgement that all this Tea Party stuff need not mean you are a complete goddamn hoot and a half moron, as lots of his imagined readership surely believes:

Unlike some of the prominent Tea Party leaders he's routinely lumped in with, Paul is not an idiot. When I asked a friend of his to characterize Paul's conversations with Sarah Palin, who provided him with an early endorsement, the friend replied: "Brief." Paul doesn't avoid the press because, like Sharron Angle, he's afraid of revealing his ignorance; rather, he does so because he's afraid he'll be unable to resist the temptation to prove how smart he is.

"If you challenge him intellectually, he's incapable of letting it go," says one GOP consultant to whom the Paul campaign has reached out for advice. "I'm sure he's wonderful at dinner parties, but he can't be having a dinner party debate with Rachel Maddow on national television." In fact, it's easy to imagine that in Paul's heart of hearts, he'd much prefer being interviewed by a smart person who deeply disagrees with him, like Maddow, than a doofus with whom he's in superficial accord, like Sean Hannity.

The piece leaves me feeling about Rand Paul as I already did: not as good as his dad; likely better than every other Senator of his party. And it leaves me a little more sure that any success he has won't be successfully used to shame or marginalize the domestic limited-government movement writ large (except to the extent that it distances it from anti-interventionism, which remains lamentable).