A week-and-a-half ago, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told a prayer breakfast in Washington, D.C., that what America needs is a good old-fashioned religious revival. Literally:
"We need a revival in the country. We need another Great Awakening with tent revivals of thousands of people saying reform or see what's going to happen if we don't reform."
You can watch video of the comments via the Christian Broadcast Network's David Brody here. Brody enthused that Paul's evangelicalizing was very much about stepping away from the views that had brought him this far:
The focus of the prayer breakfast was a chance for Sen. Paul to discuss his views on religious freedom, the church and U.S.-Israel relations, faith and public life, and the essential role the church plays in the U.S. government….
Rand Paul IS going to get a chunk of the evangelical vote. On the surface, he may not be the guy you might think would appeal to evangelicals but take a deeper look. He'll have a pretty good appeal to millennial evangelicals and his talk of spiritual revival resonates.
Plus, he's going through great lengths to show how pro-Israel he is despite some who might question him on that. And remember this: this is not some "crazy libertarian" who wants to distance himself from faith and government issues. He understands the connection and he's willing to talk about it in public.
Brody is doubtless correct that Paul, a graduate of Baptist college Baylor and never shy to talk about religion, can snare some "chunk of the evangelical vote." He's wrong, however, to suggest that such votes necessarily come at the expense of the "crazy libertarian" bloc, which is far more pronounced among millennials (roughly, voters between the ages fo 18 and 34) than old-style Religious Right politics. Millennials are the most secular cohort in America and they are driven less by fears of "a moral crisis" (Paul's term) than anger over governmental invasion of privacy, mismanagement of entitlement spending, prohibition of pot and gay marriage, and endless wars. Millennials aren't automatic libertarians by any stretch of the imagination, but both voting groups are highly skeptical of government's efficacy and centralized power. There's a lot of meaningful overlap between the two groups and evangelicals, too, especially when it comes to loosening the grip of the federal government over many areas of everyday life.
Like his father, former Libertarian Party presidential candidate and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Rand has never hid his religion under a bushel basket when courting libertarian voters because he doesn't have to. Arguably alone among large swaths of the American electorate, even atheist libertarians tend to respect the ways in which religious organizations and communities fill vital roles in civil society. Indeed, even as outspoken an atheist and libertarian as Penn Jillette is quite open to the ways religious groups benefit society.
And yet there is also no question that the ways in which Republicans tend to placate the Religious Right and social conservatives generally that alienates not just libertarians who might otherwise vote for them but also many centrist or independent voters. Talking about moral crises during times of record-low crime and teen pregnancies and swearing uncritical fealty to Israel is no way to court non-traditional GOP voters, that's for sure. Failing to directly address and answer runaway government spending or, worse, calling for cuts to food stamps while pushing for massive increases in defense spending is a good way to alienate lots of voters who are sick of big-government Democrats and big-government Republicans.
For the most part, Paul has been far, far better in pushing a small-government, libertarian-ish agenda than any of the other likely GOP presidential candidates. He has called for getting the federal government out of pot prohibition and marriage (though he's getting wobbly on the latter). He's published budgets that call for year-over-year spending cuts and he hasn't put forward a terrible tax plan that blows open the budget again to give bigger child tax credits to all Americans regardless of income while also limiting the deduction for the poorest parents (that's Marco Rubio). He has staked out a general foreign policy direction that is non-interventionist in principle, even if he's getting more and more enamored of making exceptions to the rule. He fundamentally changed the conversation about privacy, drones, and government surveillance. Unlike Ted Cruz, he doesn't come across as a political panderer who seems less interested in winning meaningul political battles than in engaging in vestigial displays of rigid principle. Paul is actually trying to reach out to new audiences for himself and the GOP more broadly.
Which isn't to say that he's not sending mixed signals to libertarians. As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, Paul may be calling for offsets to pay for vastly increased and unncessary military spending, but the fact that he's calling for it at all is problematic to me and to many libertarians. And as I told the Washington Post for a story that ran yesterday:
"To the extent he sounds more like every conservative Republican, he sounds less interesting to libertarians. I don't see what he picks up by being a version of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio," two other freshman senators who are in the mix for the Republican nomination for 2016.
As Paul gets ready to officially announce his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination this week, how far he strays from the generally libertarian thrust of his general political identity will bear close watching. Small "L" libertarians comprise somewhere between 13 percent and 25 percent of the electorate, depending on various conditions and definitions. Evangelicals are about 25 percent of the vote, according to various estimates, but represent a static or sharing shrinking share of the electorate. The Republican brand is sinking fast among millennials and there's simply no way a traditional social-con, big-defense politician is going to recapture younger voters now or in the future.
Dispositional libertarians are almost certainly looking for a major-party candidate whom they can get behind in a general election. Since winning his Senate race in 2010, Rand Paul looked like he was that candidate. To the extent that he separates himself from the other Republicans in the primaries by asserting libertarian bona fides and explaining how reducing the size, scope, and spending of government will benefit most if not all of the traditional Republican interest groups, he still may be.
Last summer, Rand Paul told Reason TV the Republicans can only win if "they become more live and let live":