At last night's GOP debate hosted by CNN (full transcript here), the Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul brought consistently brought libertarian—or at least libertarianish—perspectives on major policy debates. Whether that jumpstarts his presidential campaign is anybody's guess, but it was a bracing and welcome development.
On foreign policy and drug policy (including criminal justice reform), the senator stood out as the one Republican candidate who championed new directions rather than doubling or tripling down on failed policy after failed policy.
On foreign policy, Paul was essentially the only one advancing any sort of vision distinct from the failed interventionist thinking that has coursed through D.C. politics under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Despite a dubious claim by Donald Trump that he was the "only one on the dais" who was opposed to invading Iraq in 2003, Paul could say with conviction
I've made my career as being an opponent of the Iraq War. I was opposed to the Syria war. I was opposed to arming people who are our enemies.
Iran is now stronger because Hussein is gone. Hussein was the great bulwark and counterbalance to the Iranians. So when we complain about the Iranians, you need to remember that the Iraq War made it worse.
More important, Paul, who early on in his senatorial career talked forthrightly about the need to reduce not just the Pentagon's budget (U.S. defense spending continues to essentially equal that of all other countries), stressed that we need to rethink military interventions in the same way we think about domestic policy:
We have to learn sometimes the interventions backfire. The Iraq War backfired and did not help us. We're still paying the repercussions of a bad decision….
We have make the decision now in Syria, should we topple Assad? Many up here wanted to topple Assad, and it's like — I said no, because if you do…ISIS will now be in charge of Syria…
It's a damning insight that after two major wars that have failed either to advance U.S. interests or stabilize the countries in which they were waged that "we have to learn sometimes [that] interventions backfire."
Even liberal critics of Paul specifically and GOP hawkishness generally give Paul props. Writing at Slate, Fred Kaplan notes, "It's a strange debate where Sen. Rand Paul comes off as the most sensible contender on the stage." Where Carly Fiorina said she wouldn't even talk with Vladimir Putin or other world leaders who are despots and a number of GOP contenders insisted they would tear up the Iran deal like some circus strongman tearing up a phone book upon entering the White House, Paul actually made sense:
Contrary to almost all of his rivals (and his fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill), Paul said that he would not "tear up" the Iran nuclear deal upon entering the White House. "Let's see if the Iranians comply with it," he said, in a tone suggesting that he was making an obvious point—which, indeed, he was.
Einstein once suggested that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. He might have been thinking about 21st century foreign policy, whether conducted by Republicans or Democrats. For all the folks who think President Obama is a shrinking violet when it comes to what he once called "dumb wars," the Nobel Peace Prize winner tripled troop strength in Afghanistan, tried to keep troops in Iraq after the withdrawal date negotiated by the Bush administration, intensified drone strikes in countries with whom we are not at war, bombed Libya without constitutional authority, has sent troops back to Iraq, maintained he has the right to kill even U.S. citizens without judicial review, and more.
Obama stupidly drew a "red line" in Syria that he was unwilling to defend and he may have actually urged Ukraine to stand down at Russian forces took Crimea, but such missteps don't mean he isn't essentially an extension of failed Bush foreign policy. Six years after leaving the White House, it's easy to forget what a colossal failure George W. Bush was in the foreign policy arena. Indeed, his abject failure on that score was among the reasons Obama was able to beat interventionist John McCain so handily.
Since entering the Senate in 2011, Rand Paul at his best has forcefully and directly counseled that America needs a different style of engagement with the world, one predicated less upon dropping bombs and more upon trade, cultural presence, and other forms of soft power. Last night, he rightly urged that regional players in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia (the indirect source of so much jihadism in the world), step up in their own corners of the world.
The other moment in which Paul flew his libertarian freak flag had to do with drug policy and criminal justice reform. Paul stopped short of endorsing the end of federal prohibition against marijuana, an idea that both enjoys majority support from Americans and is an obvious move after decades of a failed drug war. Instead, Paul couched his argument in 10th Amendment terms, saying that states should be allowed to experiment with different approaches to medical and recreational pot legalization, a radical idea among the Republicans on stage and drug warriors such as Hillary Clinton:
The bottom line is the states. We say we like the 10th Amendment, until we start talking about this. And I think the federal government has gone too far, I think that the war on drugs has had a racial outcome, and really has been something that has really damaged our inner cities.
Not only do the drugs damage them, we damage them again by incarcerating them and then preventing them from getting employment over time.
So I don't think that the federal government should override the states. I believe in the 10th Amendment and I really will say that the states are left to themselves.
Paul was alone among last night's participants in touching on the racial disparities visited like a plague upon the country by the drug war. It's of a piece with his ongoing efforts to reach out to new constituencies for the GOP, especially lower-income minorities who bear the brunt of drug laws that are not only odious by themselves but are used much more intensely against blacks and Hispanics. Indeed, one of the most electrifying moments in the debate for me came when Paul told Jeb Bush, the son and brother of presidents and an argent drug warrior, to check his privilege:
Under the current circumstances, kids who had privilege like you [Jeb Bush, who has admitted to smoking pot in high school] do, don't go to jail, but the poor kids in our inner cities go to jail. I don't think that's fair. And I think we need to acknowledge it, and it is hypocritical to still want to put poor people in jail.
Despite the drug war losing ground at the state level—a couple of dozen states allow medical marijuana and three allow for recreational pot with more sure to follow—it's a brave stance to embrace the idea that people might be free to choose their intoxicants. People seeking national office are far more likely to fall back on the cliches peddled by Carly Fiorina, who invoked her daughter who died from substance abuse and denounced pot legalization via the discredited gateway-drug theory.
As an independent voter and a small-L libertarian, I don't have a strong interest in partisan politics. That's probably because there's never really been a moment in my lifetime when either of the major parties came within a thousand miles of championing policies that line up with my beliefs and predilections. I remain far more interested in all the ways that the libertarian moment is proceeding despite pushback by Democrats and Republicans. The cultural and political forces of decentralization and the empowerment of individuals to live lives of their own choosing will continue to grow whomever gets elected in 2016. Having champions in one or both of the major parties pushing libertarian ideas about limiting the size, scope, and spending of government at all levels could speed up the timing, but the move toward increased human freedom and flourishing won't be denied over the long haul.
But Rand Paul's performance last night, which included a pitch-perfect take on the minor issue of vaccines ("I'm all for vaccines. But I'm also for freedom) reminded me of why Reason dubbed him "the most interesting man in the Senate" when he took office. He is by no means without problems from my perspective (his muddled immigration policy, for instance, is longer on nativism than it is on a consistent embrace of individual rights and minimal government). Still, he was talking a different game than the others on the stage last night and whether he ends up as president is besides the larger point: His ideas and policy prescriptions reflect where the country is headed, whether establishment politicians want to go there or not.