Yet I come not to bury the "libertarian-ish" Paul but to praise him. In five short years as a senator, he's already elevated a host of issues that almost would have never seen the light of day. Assuming he keeps his Senate seat in the fall (as safe a bet as can be made in politics, which entails serious risk), he's still at the start of a career that, along with other newish colleagues, may well transform not just the GOP but the country as a whole. Here's hoping.
Among the good things that Paul has harped on (even and especially when it wasn't popular):
- Spending and debt issues. When Matt Welch and I first interviewed Paul shortly after he came to Washington in 2011, he was wearing a "red cent" lapel pin and was busy crafting balanced budgets and calling bullshit on the bipartisan willingness to deficit-spend us into oblivion. As Matt noted earlier today, he's still on that beat even as the party leadership (and his presidential rivals) mostly talk about what they want to spend your future earnings on. And don't be fooled: Debt and deficits are already getting worse than D.C. has been letting on.
- Civil liberties and state surveillance. Before there was Edward Snowden, there was Rand Paul's filibuster calling out Barack Obama for pussyfooting around whether he believed there were any limits on what a president could do in the name of the War on Terror. Liberal Democrats who had rightly denounced expansive and occult readings of executive power during the George W. Bush years had mostly fallen silent upon the ascension to the throne of Barack Obama. Pro-war Republicans mostly held their tongues too. It was Paul who brought questions about the government's and the president's unwillingness to come clean or act constitutionally to the forefront of the public. Paul's highly public act—which dominated Twitter as it happened—gave what was to come later the context we needed to understand just how FUBAR things had gotten.
- Police abuse and criminal justice reform. Rand Paul was the first national politician (along with libertarian Republican Rep. Justin Amash) to call out the situation in Ferguson, Missouri as an example of bigger issues. Before Missouri's own senator, Claire McCaskill, Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama. What's more, Paul's discussion of the matter helped place law enforcement abuses in a legal, cultural, and historical context that helped non-minorities understand what abuse of power looks like. Along with his colleague Mike Lee of Utah, he continues to be the main Republican in the Senate to be pushing serious reform of a criminal justice system that has needed reform for generations.
- Foreign policy and containment of radical Islam. Arguably the most-amazing Republican policy switcheroo is one that no one is openly talking about: Which of the GOP presidential candidates is calling for a no-holds-barred, boots-on-the-ground invasion of the Middle East these days? The answer is none (though all are dying to, as is Hillary Clinton). The person most responsible for anything resembling restraint in American foreign policy is Rand Paul. As a neophyte senator, he pushed back against what seemed at the time an unstoppable movement to bomb and eventuall invade Syria in 2013. Dubbed a "wacko bird" for arguing that the U.S. military should be used to defend the country rather than play beat cop to the world, he was the most vocal and consistent opponent of elective war in his own party. He also gave a thoughtful speech at the Heritage Foundation of all places that recovered the original meaning of Cold War "containment" as everyone and his grandpa were ready to start making sand glow green in countries we'd just pulled out of. He also is still calling for an actual declaration of war not just on ISIS but on Libya, where his caution proved sadly prophetic.
Recharging and remaking the GOP.It can't be easy to have a famous father but Paul fils, like old Daddy Ron, is remaking the Republican Party in all sorts of ways. Ron Paul brought in tons of young people and folks who had never been interested in politics during his own presidential runs in 2008 and 2012. Seemingly alone among this years presidential contenders, Rand took seriously the party's own official autopsy of Mitt Romney's sad-sack effort to unseat Obama and has spent serious time reaching out to racial and ethnic minorities as well as all sorts of other people long ignored by the Party of Lincoln. "We're going to win when we look like America," he told a New Hampshire crowd in 2013. "We need to be white, we need to be brown, we need to be black, we need to be with tattoos, without tattoos, with pony tails, without pony tails, with beards, without." As important, Paul is a mentor and inspiration to a younger generation of congressmen such as Justin Amash and Thomas Massie. Along with the always-underrated Mike Lee, Paul is one of the intellectual and strategic architects of a Republican Party that is serious about cutting the size, scope, and spending of the federal government.
Lord knows that from a Reason-style libertarian perspective, Rand Paul hasn't been perfect, either as a presidential candidate or a senator. And while the list above isn't exhaustive or complete, now is the time to take a moment and take the measure of what he's accomplished and set into motion.
The "Libertarian Moment" that Paul has rightly been identified with has never been about electoral politics per se. In coining the term, Matt Welch and I have always emphasized that we were describing a culture characterized by "comfort with and demand for increasingly individualized and personalized options and experiences in every aspect of our lives." Similarly, we stressed that politics is a "crippled, lagging indicator" of where America is headed, so you should expect it to be the last redoubt of top-down, centralized thinking and control to be remade by libertarian sensibilities. That Rand Paul has done as well as he has—and that we just witnessed two independents do so well in Iowa—is a sign that things are headed in the right direction, if never as fast as some of us might prefer.