Pundits from The Week to the generally libertarian-hating Salon credited Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul for winning last night's Republican presidential candidate debate aired on Fox Business News. The Week said Paul was "the calmest, most relaxed" guy up there and won for offering opinions on foreign policy that might have the most independent appeal, vital for national victories if not for getting GOP audiences to applaud. Salon found Paul winningly coherent and reasonable and willing to say things the GOP red-meat audience might not want to hear.
Vox declared him a winner, if not the winner, for making himself flashy and relevant tussling with Marco Rubio over fiscal conservatism and militarism and fact-checking Trump. National Review, generally not a pal to Pauls, also gives him a winner status for being "more cogent and less peevish" than they think he usually is. (A different NatRev writer hat tipped to Paul for being right in opposing a Syrian no-fly zone.)
The Washington Post gave him credit for having a "strong" debate and both the Los Angeles Times and Vanity Fair gave him cool points for being the only person smart or brave enough to point out Donald Trump seemed to believe, mistakenly, that China was a party to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact.
In a political campaign, "winning" in its purest sense would mean that after and as a result of the debate, more people are willing to vote for you. We won't know whether Paul won in that sense for at least a few days with any reliability.
Here's what Paul actually said and did last night, from start to finish, and how it might play:
• Paul blamed income inequality on Democratic executives on the local, state, and national level, seeming to pin that Party's policies for being a "root cause" of that inequality. He then tries to walk through why Federal Reserve interest rate policy and how what economists call but Rand didn't (sensibly, no one would have understood) "Cantillon effects" (about the specific ways new money enters the economy) might advantage the already advantaged over the disadvantaged. He further blames the Fed by pointing out that inflation hurts low income people the most. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator has any savings over the course of the Obama administration losing 10 percent of its value.)
All interesting points and all more complicated than Paul was able to make them. Debates aren't really adequate spaces to make arguments that aren't already bone-familiar and basic to everyone watching. Making the case for conclusions involving complicated chains of evidence and reasoning not on the table, rooted in idea-worlds not that familiar to most Americans, will resonate or not based on reasons beyond the actual evidence for what you are saying. (For example, GOP voters are probably happy to believe that Democratic governance increases inequality without hearing the chain of evidence and reasoning behind the assertion.) The more complicated Federal Reserve policy stuff, I suspect, except for making people who already think that nod, will be a wash, but it does mark his distinctive Paulian background, for what that will end up being worth.
• Paul stands up for his fair and flat tax plan by saying it's better in general for money to stay with the private sector rather than government. He credits himself for not just cutting taxes but also thinking through spending cuts enough to get a theoretically balanced budget even with tax cuts. He advocated cutting a penny from every dollar across the board in current spending, which he believes will essentially balance the budget within five years.
He wants to kill the payroll tax as well, even though that gives a larger tax cut in raw cash terms to the more well-off. He advocates a 14.5 percent corporate and individual tax rate across the board, with only home mortgage interest and charitable deductions as "loopholes."
•The part where he and Rubio go back and forth on whether we can afford massive militarism and whether it's "conservative" to imagine we can spend to the ends of the earth in the name of overseas interventionism are getting the most attention and fit the narrative we already understand about Paul vs. his opponents: he's the only one who isn't crazily expansionist on military spending and military action.
While most libertarians (if you count such luminaries as Milton Friedman and Murray Rothbard as covering the widest swath of libertarian opinions) are for any tax cut everywhere, despite a recognition that targeted tax cuts will have distortionary effects to some degree, Paul stresses that Rubio's child-tax care credit could result in not just getting tax money you owe back, but also getting a refund of more than the tax you owe. That might look like a tax cut to the unsophisticated, but Rand slams it as in fact a welfare giveaway to parents with children. Paul is taking a rough "tax cuts forever, giveaways never" stance. Consistent and conservative, but I bet a lot of voters will really want that child care tax credit.
• Paul talks TPP, fact checks Trump on China's role in it, and hat tips to congressional power over trade deals, without using the term condemning "fast track" authority for trade deals and standing up for congressional power to filibuster and amend even trade pacts. He then widens out to a call for more congressional power, less executive power in general. None of the TPP talk tonight got down to the level of understandable specifics, and the Congress v. executive thing might be a bit more subtle political philosophy than the average voter cares about.
• Paul defends the principle of talking and negotiating with Russia under nearly all circumstances, warns that enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria risks starting a new war in the Middle East involving Russia, tries to attach Hillary Clinton to supporters of an enforced no-fly zone. He ends by reminding viewers that not sending arms to rebels in the Middle East we think are on "our side" would have been a great idea to begin with. That is, we need to look not just at the troubles of today, but consider how the foreign policy mistakes of yesterday create the troubles of today. He must sell this idea to lots of voters to do well in the future, so it's great he touched on it.
• Paul admits humans might have some role in global warming but is skeptical that it's the sole explanation for temperature changes, and still calls to repeal the Clean Power Act. He wants to balance environmental regulation with economic growth in an unspecified way, and blames Obama's coal policy for hurting his home state of Kentucky, reminding us that currently coal is a big part of how we can affordably keep ourselves cool when it's hot and warm when it's cold. Probably about as sensible and balanced as a Republican candidate could sound on these (again) very complicated issues.
His final word: "Can you be a fiscal conservative…if you are a profligate spender" on the military? "We have to be conservative on all spending….I'm the only fiscal conservative on the stage."
It's all a far cry from my hope-not-advice in the New York Times earlier this year that Rand Paul run as a more hardcore ideological libertarian, questioning the state's right to manage our lives and our income every step of the way.
But last night's debate performance did, I'd say, demonstrate he's the most thoughtful guy on the stage, combining a sense that we need severe changes in the way government taxes, spends, and behaves with a demeanor and style that feels comfortably mainstream, both in the GOP context and perhaps more importantly in a national context.
Here's the debate video of only Rand Paul:
Other takeaways from other folk from the debate regarding Paul:
• The Daily Beast points out the obvious: the three first term "Tea Party" senators all running for the same office with the same electorate are jabbing at each other (as they put it, the "Tea Party Boy Band Breaks Up") and continues the casual and unsupported and unquestioned belief that of course Rand Paul can't win the nomination while of course Cruz and Rubio can. The flaw in this reasoning? Polls in November are not reliable barometers of final results, as Stephanie Slade reliably points out here at Reason.
• Independent Journal reminds us that it only seems like Paul won over Rubio if you actually at least somewhat agree that we can't afford to borrow ourselves into the next century in order to keep our military involved everywhere and spending as much as the next seven biggest-spending militaries combined.