What Can Rand Paul Do?

The Tea Party libertarian will likely prove a more effective figurehead than senator.


For all the furor the Tea Party movement generated this year, when it came to the mightiest deliberative body in human history, the U.S. Senate, the Tea Party won only one real prize: Rand Paul's election as Kentucky's junior senator. On the surface he's a Republican, but Paul frames himself as a representative of a supposedly trans-partisan Tea Party, burning with an urge to cut spending and curb debt that he admits his GOP comrades have not shown.

In terms of passing laws or shifting the Senate in his direction, Paul is not going to get much done by trying to operate as a one-man Tea Party in a minority party. Though he may become a filibuster machine, which given his outlier status means the Senate will have lots of cloture votes to shut him up. (He is not likely to succeed in using the filibuster to cap the debt limit and thereby destroy the entire world economy, as has been wildly speculated in some quarters.)

While those frightened by Paul see in him the power and will to wreck the planet, his fans are unduly thrilled just to hear a senator-elect talking about raising the retirement age and means testing for Social Security; cutting federal employment and pay; plotting a two-year path to a balanced budget; pushing term limits and a balanced budget constitutional amendment; insisting that bills should point to their constitutional justification and that senators should have read them before signing on; and even, to the surprise of some who found him avoiding his father's non-interventionism on the campaign trail, talking up military cuts and questioning the value of our Afghanistan mission.

I say "unduly thrilled" because in most of these attitudes, Rand Paul is a man alone in the Senate, with no power to make any of it happen. It's a delight to know that other Republican senators are also talking defense cuts; but alas, most of them frame their defense budget hawkishness in terms of waste and trimming specific useless bits of machinery. What's really needed to create an affordable and constitutional foreign policy is a complete rethink of America's world-straddling, quasi-imperial mission, as per Papa Paul.

As a legislator, it would be silly to expect much out of Rand Paul, either as a minority party freshman or even as the majority party freshman he may well become in 2012. As departing Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) sadly sums up, "I think [voters] probably do not understand how little influence one senator has…here, in order to get things done you have to have concurrence of at least 60 members in order to go forward on a piece of legislation." University of Southern California political scientist Christian Grose says that Paul "could have some clout. It may not be clout in the legislative process, but clout in terms of raising issues not otherwise discussed" in both Washington and around the country. "Sometimes you have to get an idea in the public sphere [before it's mainstream] to have policy change over the long term," Grose says. And UC Berkeley political scientist Sean Gailmard says there's a good news-bad news side to being a senator—it's much easier to get ideas to the floor than in the more leadership-controlled House, but still "in the Senate basically nothing is going to happen without 60 percent approving of it," and Paul has pretty much no positions that have that kind of support.

Among many progressives of my acquaintance, Paul has become a male Sarah Palin of sorts. Not because he seems dumb like her, per se, but simply because believing the libertarian things he believes makes him inherently a laughable-but-dangerous fanatic. That raises questions about his value to the libertarian cause that are likely to outweigh his votes and the legislation he introduces.

Paul is a Republican who thinks of himself as a Tea Party man. But whether we like it or not, or certainly whether he likes it or not, he is linked in the public mind with libertarianism. While significant differences in style and emphasis exist between him and other libertarians, his general political vision is as radically libertarian as anything the modern Senate has seen.

Thus, any dumb thing Paul says or does, any deviation from small-government principle, will become a public brick against libertarianism. And in an MSNBC world, sticking to his principles will be a weapon used against libertarianism as well. Rand Paul, even given his almost certain inefficacy as senator qua senator, represents a simultaneous opportunity and danger for the small-government cause. With him in the Senate and his father in the House, libertarianism will face unprecedented amounts of harsh attention, including the sort that doesn't give libertarians the sideways complement of being curious cases of real principle in an ugly GOP swamp. These libertarians, outgunned as they are, could start being dangerous.

After 23 years defending libertarian ideas in public and private, this strikes me as both great and fearful news, even if Sen. Paul is unlikely to bring about any actual policy changes. When the nation as a whole is paying attention to a libertarian as hardcore as Rand Paul (and he's not even that extreme—he told ABC's The Week that he's OK with a $2.4 trillion dollar government as long as it doesn't spend beyond its means trying to be a $4 trillion government), I fear that most Americans will find they do not like what they see. An inefficacious senator risks becoming an extremist laughingstock.

I'm afraid that, despite Paul's victory, it still marks a politician as insanely beyond the pale to believe, say, that the federal government could function by only burning through as much cash as it did a decade ago; that giving government appointees power to manipulate the currency at will can have some very predictably bad effects; that national defense should actually be about defending the nation and its people from attack; and that as a general principle, freedom of choice is to be preferred to planning and state action and bossing people around.

So if Rand Paul ends up getting nothing done and failing to win mainstream respect for the ideas he stands for, what good is he?

If he can use cable news and the Internet, and skillfully exploit the predictable crisis on the horizons arising from the out of control spendng, inflation, and debt he decries, Paul can become the Tea Party leader he wants to be. Thus he might influence and inspire future politicians who will seek, and perhaps win, congressional primaries, whether or not the powers that be in the media or the party hierarchy like it.

I'd love to see some Rand Paul-inspired candidates with a more robustly expressed love of non-interventionist foreign policy and of ending the drug war with extreme prejudice. But even a few Rand Paul clones would be good. "I have great confidence in the American system," Paul said in his acceptance speech. "We must believe in ourselves and not believe that somehow, some benevolent leader in a distant capital will take care of us, will save us from ourselves. We must once again believe in ourselves." That's not the sound of a modern American politician. Paul's greatest chance to change his country is managing his difficult public position with enough sense and panache to ensure that two, four, six years from now, more American politicians sound like that.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man (BenBella), Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and Gun Control on Trial (Cato Institute).