Rand Paul and the Perils of the "Interesting" Candidate


I've got an essay this morning on Politico on this most Rand Paul-y of days. It's mostly about the difficulties of splitting the difference between the "interesting" (generally, read: libertarian-ish) aspects that made him a relative mediagenic darling on his way up, and appealing to the wide swath of GOP voters and normal Americans who often still find this libertarian stuff scary.


Whereas Paul told me back in 2013 that he hoped to make "audit the Pentagon" as popular a rallying cry as his father Ron Paul did "audit the Fed," he's now proposing $190 billion in spending increases for defense over two years, but claims fiscal conservative bonafides regardless since the proposal comes with accompanying cuts elsewhere.

Paul used to be very forceful in distinguishing his vision of American power abroad from the "neoconservative" one that tried to gin up constant war in the Middle East. Now he's definitely for using force against ISIL and signed the Tom Cotton letter clearly intended to scotch negotiations over keeping Iran from getting nuclear weapons. That decision lost Paul some prominent supporters from the anti-empire crowd that flocked to his father, but Paul said at an appearance at the SXSW festival that it was more complicated than it might seem: he was not trying to end negotiations; "The message was to President Obama that we want you to obey the law, we want you to understand the separation of powers."

Rand's non-interventionism has evolved into something that seems more about process than content, always strong on congressional authority in war making, but softer on when and where such force might be appropriate. Still, foreign policy advisor Elise Jordan says that Paul's "conservative realism" is mindful of the physician's imperative that our foreign policy moving forward should "do no harm," takes into account the security risks of overspending ourselves into bankruptcy and sees a positive virtue in not declaring ideological pre-commitments regarding questions like: should we or should we not definitely commit to using all necessary force to keep Iran from getting a bomb? But Paul still can't escape having a wide variety of Party activists see him as a reflexive non-interventionist.

When it comes to foreign aid, he's walking the line the opposite way, stressing content when his libertarian fans might prefer he stick to being against the process in general. He used to be for ending all foreign aid as a matter of principle; lately his anti-foreign aid proposals are more specifically aimed at regimes that persecute Christians or, in the case of the Palestinians, attack Israelis.

Consistency of principled message is a virtue more than one Paul campaign advisor tout as among his strongest, but there is no political benefit from libertarian individualist philosophy on matters like free association (no wonder he avoided the media scrum over Indiana and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act last week). He learned his lesson from being slammed after discussing on Rachel Maddow's show in 2010 whether consistent belief in freedom of association might make aspects of the Civil Rights Act questionable. When old video surfaced of him defending a libertarian vision of rights as inherent in individuals and not about status or specific behaviors we choose, Buzzfeed made hay of Paul not believing in "gay rights." Campaign message discipline moving forward won't be enough; everything Paul ever said in front of a camera or tape recorder will be made part of the campaign by his opponents on both sides.

Read the whole thing.