Dear Sen. Paul,
Allow me to reintroduce you to someone. Young guy (for national politics), twinkle in his eye, someone people would typically describe as a "fresh face in Washington" before this insane political season of sexagenarian amateurs gobbling up most of the country's available political oxygen. This fella came to office by running a maverick campaign against the party establishment's favorite, stressing at least some libertarianish themes, and surviving a nasty primary smear campaign about being some kind of whacked-out drug creep.
Sure, I could be talking about you. But in this case I'm referring to Rep. Beto O'Rourke, the Democratic former city councilman from El Paso who in 2012 unseated eight-term incumbent Silvestre Reyes—a former Border Patrol agent—in part by advocating the legalization of marijuana. O'Rourke is unorthodox in other respects; like you, for example, he favors term limits, which is not a typical liberal position. But he was an early mover on the kinds of criminal justice reform you've been championing, and has some insight into what it's like for a politician to stick his neck out on weed.
I interviewed O'Rourke a month ago for Reason; here's a snippet of potential relevance to your debate opportunities tonight in Boulder, Colorado (I'll bold the most applicable bits):
reason: After seeing how things are and what your colleagues are like in Washington, and then also observing the very tangible strides that bipartisan criminal justice reform has made particularly over the last 18 months, do you think there's a possibility that legalization or parts of rolling back the drug war—that the same thing can happen to that as happened basically after Joe Biden gave his trial balloon about gay marriage, where suddenly all Democrats or most Democrats who were too timid to talk about it now all say "Yes, of course, we've always been in favor of gay marriage!" Could we be at a political tipping point where two years from now it is just an overwhelmingly normal position, and you start to see this thing getting dismantled? Or are the structures different and deeper and more difficult?
O'Rourke: I think the answer is yes.
I think it's one of these issues where the people are way ahead of their representatives. It's just been so hard-wired into politicians for so long that you can't touch this one, and so it's almost like this phantom restriction that's no longer there, as measured in public opinion or election outcomes; anyway you look at it.
If one of the presidential candidates—really no one better than Donald Trump to introduce an idea like this, because no one is talking about anything else—but if any of the candidates were to introduce this, it would make news. But I don't think people would get too excited one way or the other about it. The same way if a candidate today were to say I do or don't support gay marriage. America's there, and everyone in D.C. is kind of catching up.
I wonder, though, what the trigger's going to be. I wonder who that person is, or what that event is in the U.S. that finally allows this much needed change to take place. Maybe it's a presidential candidate or maybe it's this new administration starting in January of 2017, and that's the political opening to do the right thing. But I do think it happens sooner than later, certainly think it's very possible in the next five years.
I wonder who that person is….Senator, are you really going to cede that 2016 presidential ground to the socialist?
You're in Boulder, you've already raised money this summer from the Colorado cannabis industry, you're meeting with some Students for Rand any minute now, and you volunteered these comments at the University of Colorado last night:
"I want to give you an idea what it's like in Washington," Paul said about the state's legalization of marijuana. "They are really, really worried about you. … And I kid you not, they think you are wielding axes and running naked through the streets. They think it's utter mayhem out here."
"I'm not here to advocate for marijuana," Paul continued. "But I'm here to advocate for freedom. And you know what, if I'm president I'm going to leave Colorado the hell alone."
This is all in keeping with your excellent and detailed track record of trying to get the federal government out of the pot-crackdown business, and all its freedom-squelching subsidiaries. So why am I harassing a criminal justice-reforming 10th Amendment constitutionalist to say that he would personally vote for a state-level legalization?
Three words: Authenticity, opportunism, and endgame.
1) Authenticity. Voters so far this election cycle are flocking to candidates they perceive to be speaking deeply held, unpopular truths. Your go-to quote about legalization, while perfectly in keeping with good federalist principles, is nevertheless the opposite of that: "I really haven't taken a stand on…the actual legalization. I haven't really taken a stand on that, but I'm against the federal government telling them they can't."
Have Donald Trump and Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders surprised all prognosticators this cycle by saying "I haven't really taken a stand on that"? No, they have not. That phrase signals a politician calculating how much of his own beliefs he can get away with advocating. And while I have and will continue to applaud you for the approach of figuring out how best to mainstream libertarian ideas within the unfriendly confines of the Republican Party and United States Senate, Beto O'Rourke is onto something when it comes to the phantom opposition to this particular position.
To put it bluntly (sorry!), 58 percent of Americans now favor legalizing pot, including 71 percent of adults under age 35 (I hear your comeback depends heavily on the support of student groups?). Yes, Republican support is just around 39 percent overall, but 63 percent of millennial Republicans and 47 percent of Gen Xers are already there. Given trendlines and demographics, what looks like a lonely Republican position today will be crowded tomorrow.
2) Opportunism. Americans have been watching these GOP debates in record numbers; ask Carly Fiorina how important it is to dominate a post-debate news cycle. "Republican Candidate Comes Out for Legal Weed in Colorado"? The headline writes itself.
But these contests are also about contrast. Wherever you differ from the entire rest of the stage should be seen as an opportunity, not a danger. That goes for being a spending hawk, an intervention skeptic, and a criminal justice reformer. A majority of the GOP field has now moved to your position of respecting Colorado's legalization, which sounds like an opportunity to create some new distance. You haven't topped 5 percent in a national poll in two months, so maybe it's time to stop worrying about the downside risks.
3) Endgame. Let's imagine the most likely scenario, statistically: you do not win the GOP nomination, and you retain your Senate seat. That means you'll be in national politics until at least 2023, perhaps in a position to run for president again. What do you want, policy-wise, to happen over the next eight years?
Among other prominent and important goals, you want like hell for the drug war to end. You hate that damn thing. "I'll do everything to end the war on drugs," you told Bill Maher last year.
I interpret "everything" to include a forthright and early declaration from a brave politician that state bans on this leafy green plant, while tolerable on federalist grounds, are intolerable morally. They are the product of bullying politicians like Chris Christie telling peaceful adults what they can and cannot put into their own bodies. Pot prohibition is the gateway drug for police to harass comparatively powerless communities and ensnare millions into a profoundly flawed criminal justice system.
The inevitable logic of your multi-layered hostility to the drug war is supporting the legalization of marijuana. What's more, everybody knows this. Might as well get there sooner rather than later, and while the cameras are still rolling.
Since I started this letter with a re-introduction; let me finish with one, too. There once was a politician who wrote these words:
A plurality of Americans are no longer Republicans or Democrats. These Americans want a new combination of beliefs. These Americans are fiscally conservative and also concerned with personal liberty. A philosophy that joins economic and personal liberty becomes a potent political force. Such a philosophy transcends typical political labels and parties—and crosses all classes.
This philosophy of liberty defends the poor, defends minority rights, and protects the privacy of all of us.
A candidate who champions this philosophy can unify the country.
Remember that guy? Be him tonight.
UPDATE: Looks like Bill Steigerwald was thinking along similar lines. Check out his debate advice here.