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.

Paul has a wily political intelligence without being disingenuous or selling out his own principles; he thinks about what he's going to say and who he's going to say it to with more care than his father tended to exhibit. Nor is he afraid to go intellectual in a big national speech; last night he name-dropped Adam Smith (and not Ludwig von Mises? Traitor!, some of his father's truculent fans will doubtless grouse) and Montesquieu.

Unlike Rubio, Paul didn't even allude to abortion, a topic on which he's quite passionate in other venues. In interviews I conducted with Paul for a recent New York Times article, he was adamant that Republicans had to be more than just traditionally conservative to win the independents they need to be viable in New England and the West Coast.  At the same time, he didn't seem to think his fervent anti-abortion stance would be too troubling to those voters, something I'm less sure of than he is.

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 (as in Rubio's slightly pathetic complaining about how awful it is that liberals say bad things about conservative's motives).

Every time Paul makes a prominent public statement or move, he runs the risk of going too far for a mass Republican or independent audience, and also of being seen as too mainstream by his (and his father's) libertarian followers. With the State of the Union response, he's continued to keep himself erect on the tightrope, being properly libertarian-constitutionalist on issues such as the Fourth and Second Amendments and executive power, while also discussing a possible inflation crisis that few others are talking about. He also at least hinted that true fiscal discipline includes cuts to military spending, and he sounded all the right conservative rebel notes about the economic fecklessness of Washington, D.C.

Paul is politically intelligent, but as his immigration comments last night showed, he's not afraid to offend. Indeed, he told a Values Voters conference back in September that "I don't believe Jesus would have killed anyone or condoned killing, perhaps not even in self-defense." That sort of thing is too emotional and religious for policy wonks at a think tank like Heritage, too heady and heavy and uncalled for in the State of the Union response, but Paul said it and hasn't backed away from it.

Paul told me in January that after his foreign policy speech he has some big outreach speeches for Republican political values to African-Americans and Hispanics on deck. In other words, this is most definitely a guy running for president. He's ready to bring back his five-year path to a balanced budget to test his colleagues' seriousness about spending; he doesn't see any immediate threats to America requiring military action; and he hates mandatory minimum drug sentences and overcriminalization as much as most red-meat Republicans just seem to hate "the liberals."

And he's generally not afraid to represent the largely libertarian core of who he is, while also managing to avoid the pariah status within the GOP suffered by his father. To the great shock of this longtime watcher of libertarianism's slow crawl through American politicis, Rand Paul's State of the Union response showed that to be as libertarian as Rand Paul currently is does not make you an ignorable fringe nut, but instead makes you an early frontrunner for the Republican Party's 2016 presidential nomination.