Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) continues simultaneously climbing up the GOP totem pole and assaulting the traditional (and traditionally unsatisfactory) left-right spectrum on issues ranging from civil liberties to foreign policy to immigration to criminal justice to industrial hemp. This is both a reflection of libertarianism's genre-defying principles, and of Paul's own canny sense of political possibilities. As he told Fox News this Sunday,
[T]his left-right spectrum doesn't always work for people, but I think because of some of that confusion, it shows that someone like myself, I think, could appeal to young people, independents and moderates, because many of them do think it's a mistake to put people in jail for marijuana use and throw away the key. So, I think there are people who would like a less aggressive foreign policy. There are all kinds of issues that don't neatly fit in the left-right paradigm that I think would help, because we're not doing very well in a lot of these states, these purple and blue states. So, we do need a candidate that would appeal across the left-right paradigm.
All of this has put left-of-center commentators in a pickle: Do you 1) applaud Paul for fighting some good fights, 2) dismiss him as a kook, or 3) both? Door #3 appears to be an increasingly popular–and occasionally delicious–choice. Some examples:
* Ian Millhiser, Think Progress, "Rand Paul Is Right On Marijuana, And That Should Scare Democrats Into Action":
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is one of America's most radical ideologues. He endorsed a discredited, century-old Supreme Court decision that would give employers nearly limitless power to exploit their workers. He opposes bans on employment discrimination and on whites-only lunch counters. He backs nationwide anti-union legislation that would reduce both union and non-union wages by $1,500 a year. And he backs a dangerous constitutional amendment that would have doubled unemployment and caused the economy to shrink by 17 percent. Few, if any, politicians would do more harm to more people if given the opportunity to turn their preferences into law.
Which is why Democrats need to take his effort to outflank them on drug policy very, very seriously. […]
[I]f Democrats cede this issue to the likes of Rand Paul, they will give up a powerful opportunity to engage with young voters — and potentially empower one of America's most dangerous politicians in the process.
* Kelli Goff, The Root, "Tea Partier Shows Up Obama on Drug Policy":
To the extent that he is known to minority audiences at all, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is likely best known for his controversial criticism of the Civil Rights Act. But he may soon emerge with a much higher profile among black Americans, and a much more positive one, thanks in large part to his equally controversial comments on another issue: drug policy. […]
The question now becomes whether or not President Obama has the courage to become a voice for those young men in his second term or if he is going to continue to allow a Tea Partier who questions the Civil Rights Act to become a more credible voice for young men of color than the first black president.
* John Cole, Balloon Juice, "This is Just Plain Common Sense":
I know that by writing this I am going to be accused of being a fan bois and told I am being duped by an insane crazy person, but you know what? Rand Paul is right […]
I'd love a better spokesman, but at least some people were exposed to this opinion who might not otherwise agree with it.
Much less grudgingly complimentary is Frank Bruni in The New York Times, "Rand Paul's Loopy Ascent"
[H]e has managed, with remarkable speed, to migrate to the foreground of Republican politics. You could almost lose sight of what an albatross he really is. […]
Paul's greatest hits include a denunciation of Medicare as socialism, a recommendation of stopping foreign aid to a few key allies, and the insistent introduction of Patriot Act amendments so loopy that one of them netted all of 10 votes from the 95 senators present while another garnered a whopping total of 4. […]
He'd be a skunk in a presidential primary and a quixotic, doomed nominee.
He has railed erroneously about the Clean Water Act's effect on his toilets, indelicately quibbled with aspects of the Civil Rights and Americans With Disabilities Acts, and carped about the "nanny state" in relation to seat-belt laws. Yes, seat-belt laws. […]
It's a crazy salad he's serving, no matter how it's currently dressed.
In fact, isn't Rand Paul a valuable litmus test? I'm not saying that disagreeing with any given politician proves one thing or another about a person, but if you look at the bipartisan list of people who have been screaming themselves purple about the junior senator from Kentucky–Bruni, John McCain, Lawrence O'Donnell, William Kristol, Garrett Epps, Michael Gerson, John Yoo–you quickly detect one important trait in common: They are all reliable apologists for the government exercise of power. While the particular power being championed may vary, and the tenor of the argument will change depending on which political party is exercising it this season, the truism remains that Rand Paul poses a direct challenge to people who get irritated when there's any obstruction between their goals and government's ability to pursue them.
For that and other reasons, Paul is not only the most interesting man in the Senate, but I think the most interesting player in American politics today.