Essay: Rand Paul and Conservative Politics

Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky has become a political media sensation. Many Republicans are excited about him and he has recently been mentioned as a contender for the 2016 presidential race. But since the Republican Party is currently in the wilderness, it is fair to ask whether or not men like Rand Paul are going to help lead us out of it.


His supporters, many of whom are friends of mine, think the answer is yes. They point to lots of positive things, which I will list and augment: he’s not a career politician, but an eye doctor who ran for office as a newcomer in 2010; he’s a pretty intelligent guy, having scored a 30 on the MCAT exam (the most objective measure I could find); he has a famous last name and the support network that his father built; he is effective with the communication tools of the day; he is reasonably charismatic, much more than his father; he is a Tea Party-style conservative and also draws a lot of inspiration from both the libertarian and objectivist traditions; he appears to have many more young supporters across the country than other well-known Republicans; he seems to be a great family man and there is no hint of personal scandals around him; and he lacks some of the negative traits of many establishment Republicans.

My friends who like him would also say that they like his principles and positions, often because of how uncompromising he is. They enjoy his criticism of establishment Republicans, especially in the Senate.

But what I decided to find out is who he is and what he wants to accomplish. Most importantly, will he accomplish it?

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(Beware, this is 3,600 words – but worth it, I hope!)

– Who is Rand Paul?

– Coming to Washington

– Media Strategy

– The Second Book

– The National Stage

– The Ryan Budget

– Conclusion

Who is Rand Paul?

I decided to give Rand Paul every chance to convince me of his merit, and the likelihood of success in pursuit of the goals he often espouses. Not only have I followed him since his political debut in late 2010, I re-read his first book “The Tea Party Goes to Washington” which I perused two years ago. I then read his second book, “Government Bullies: How Everyday Americans are Being Harassed, Abused, and Imprisoned by the Feds” which came out recently. I also read some of his recent major speeches, and did some research into this background.

Learning about his entry into politics, I couldn’t help but think of George W. Bush. Both men had famous fathers who had a strong network of supporters and donors. Both men discovered that they had a real knack for politics when they changed careers to test the waters. Both men saw that they didn’t need a majority of people to be excited about them, but a small, loyal constituency in a red state where conservative themes would do well. (Of course, they are very different men.)

One of the differences between Paul and Bush, and this is very important for understanding Rand Paul, is their theory of political change. Though it certainly didn’t characterize his presidency, George Bush was brought up in the get-along establishment-oriented world of Republican Texas politics. Bush was always happy to work with Democrats to get things done. (Note: Texas Democrats are nothing like the ones on the American coasts.)

Bush never intended to make radical change. He wasn’t motivated by intellectuals who had a pure view of the issues. He was someone who would compromise to get a deal done.

Paul is the opposite. His father Ron is a believer in the importance of intellectuals in politics. Ron was not interested in joining the establishment or making deals. In fact, Ron Paul was, officially, the least successful legislator in American history. In his long career, he authored more than 450 bills. Only his last one, to rename a post office, ever became law.

Rand took that view of politics and combined it with the righteousness of Goldwater-style libertarianism and contemporary Tea Party constitutional fundamentalism. He was not going to the Senate to pass laws, but to repeal them – as Goldwater said and Paul proclaims in his first book. (The fact that you actually have to pass a law to repeal something is crucial in understanding why Paul hasn’t been able to repeal anything. More on that later.)

Coming to Washington

Rand Paul entered the U.S. Senate to much fanfare. He initially made a serious political blunder in coming out against some of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a terrible mistake for a white southerner whose father published many racist newsletters in the 1990s. He thought he was having an intellectual discussion of government power, and his libertarian philosophy naturally was in conflict with some of the mechanisms of that act. He will never again be so foolish on that issue, but that interview will dog him for years.

His first book, ready a couple of weeks after being sworn in, which he certainly had no time to have written himself, was called, “The Tea Party Goes to Washington.” When he got to D.C., he had a copy sent to every member of Congress. This was an act of arrogance that I, and many others, groaned at.

The book is a great but forgettable tour through Tea Party ideas. I found that I agreed with just about everything in there, as I imagine a slim majority of the country would have in 2011. He has a lot of quotes from intellectuals and politicians, especially from Barry Goldwater. Now I really like him, and my father was a Goldwater man. But that was a very long time ago. Quoting him on cutting programs and military bases is fine, but to provide no insight in how to do it in an entirely different world where the government is far larger than Goldwater could have ever imagined?

Does the book have any interesting ideas? I didn’t think so. Often, complex problems are simplified to fit into his philosophy, such as this on foreign aid and military involvement:

The great irony is that conservatives preach individual responsibility and reliance domestically but practice policies abroad that create dependence on foreign aid and dependence on foreign soldiers. Where conservatives will ask the domestically unemployed to seek work and become independent of government welfare, abroad we let nations depend on our succor. We don’t demand the same self-reliance internationally that we do domestically.

The world, and where we should send support, is far more complicated than that.

He puts forth general reform ideas for complicated entitlement problems, which I agreed with, but he sometimes avoids the toughest problems. On health care, he says that the politicians are too concerned about access, and not about cost.

He makes this laughable statement: “As a physician, the number one complaint I hear about is cost, not access.” Doctor Paul, your patients already have access. He skips the access problem for the same reason as other Republicans. It’s hard to develop a non-government approach to solve it. Of course, his ideas on cost control are standard free-market ideas that I agree with.

The real test of a legislator is not his or her intentions going in, but what happens when they get there.

Media Strategy

Senator Paul was, thanks to his national libertarian and Tea Party following, ready to be a popular figure in right-wing media. However, right-wing media is both blessing and curse, if you want to make real change in Washington. The culture of our party’s media favors speed and partisanship, not contemplation and compromises.

Also, it encourages the kind of shoot-from-the-hip statements that get you in trouble with the Fact-Checkers as many Republican politicians have found. Politifact gives him a so-so rating but I am uncomfortable with him saying dangerous and totally untrue things like, “The president is advocating a drone strike program in America.”

The Washington Post’s non-partisan Fact Checker also has nailed Paul for all kinds of falsehoods, from trying to re-write history on what he said about the Civil Rights Act, to absolutely false statements about the Boston bombers, to misquoting John McCain, to intentionally misleading the public on the size of foreign aid.

This kind of typical right-wing buffoonery is a hallmark of other flash-in-the-pan conservative sensations like Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann. It’s a bad omen for his future. His father never trafficked in this kind of nonsense, and it was one reason he never lost credibility despite being outside the mainstream.

Lastly under media, I want to touch upon his 2013 response to the State of the Union speech. It has a lot of good things in it, despite a couple of falsehoods, such as that the president is giving people free phones (roundly debunked everywhere except in right-wing media). More than once he calls for a bipartisan approach, even though he blames both parties for the problems and is critical of Democrats many times. The fact that Paul can’t even call for bipartisanship without irritating people on both sides is an important thing to know about his potential effectiveness as a senator.

The Second Book

After his first year, it is probably clear to Senator Paul that no one is listening to him in the government, even when he’s right. In fact, his second book says this:

I came to Washington eighteen months ago knowing I could not change the world immediately. But I thought I could make at least some headway quicker than I have. Before I got here, I never realized the enormity of the problem. I underestimated the number of reinforcements, like-minded fellow senators, that would be necessary for me to succeed.

(It doesn’t occur to the Senator that you actually need people who are not like-minded to vote with you on things. If he’s waiting for 58 more Ted Cruzes to arrive, he’s got a long wait ahead of him.)

So he (actually his chief of staff Doug Stafford) writes a book of real-life government horror stories. It’s called,  “Government Bullies: How Everyday Americans are Being Harassed, Abused, and Imprisoned by the Feds.” It is chock full of stories about how the government has abused our citizens, particularly the Environmental Protection Agency.

The stories are tremendously one-sided, and especially the ones involving the EPA have come under fire for not being entirely accurate. Regardless, the stories are so awful I don’t know if them being slightly less shocking would matter. Other stories, like the one involving Gibson Guitars getting raided for their imported wood – are accurate and were widely reported in the media.

In response to the outrages at the EPA – an agency that Republicans have almost always disliked – Paul actually proposes legislation to reform the Clean Water Act! Legislation! I was thrilled to read that.

He authors the “Defense of Environment and Property Act of 2012” (S. 2122). He finds all kinds of citizens and some outside groups that agree the reforms are a very good idea. (They seemed fine to me.) But surprise, surprise! Few of his colleagues want to support him. Of course, he blames shadowy establishment figures, but names no one.

But after insulting everyone for a year and presenting himself as an anti-government zealot, what Democrat would possibly take up a government reform bill drafted by Rand Paul? (And you’d need bipartisan support to pass it.)

In the book he proposes other legislative solutions to government abuses. However, he says of them:

“None of the bills I have mentioned in this chapter could pass through the current Congress. We are well short of the necessary defenders of liberty in the Senate to pass such legislation.”

There he goes again. People who don’t agree with his views don’t like liberty. Got that, other-59-members-needed-to-pass-things?

The National Stage

Paul is surrounded by people and pundits who think he’s meant for bigger things. Since the party is in the wilderness and because libertarianism is certainly the cure for some of what ails the brand, Paul is now acting like he wants to run for president. (There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, as more than 300 people do that every four years.)

Other than the State of the Union response, he decided to go to the historically-black Howard University to give a speech. It must have seemed a dramatic way to repair the damage of his Civil Rights Act debacle in 2011, and he knows the party must do better with minorities.  Despite the fact that he tried to re-write history on his remarks, I thought the speech was fine. (Transcript here.) I didn’t like him saying, “we will have to rethink our arguments and try to rise above empty partisan rhetoric” – as he does a lot of empty rhetoric – but I loved him saying this in the style of his father: “my trip will be a success if the Hilltop will simply print that a Republican came to Howard but he came in peace.” However, his attendance was more important than the words, which were not totally appreciated by the students.

Paul is also doing a tour of other parts of the country, including Silicon Valley. He believes that the West Coast could vote Republican if it was more libertarian. That sounds good, but I don’t necessarily agree with him. Yes, libertarianism is the answer for the GOP culture war that nobody out there likes. But their view of government is very different than his, even if there is agreement on government overreach on the economy. His personal conviction against gay marriage and his political position of “let the states decide” won’t be good enough for people in Silicon Valley who are absolutely for it.

However, I wish him well trying to bring the party to new people. I don’t think he’s the right messenger, but I doubt he will do harm. If he gets some people to forget about the worst parts of the GOP brand, more power to him.

The Ryan Budget

As a politician who believes in a lot less government, I expected Paul to want a smaller budget. He speaks about the budget all the time.

In fact, he authored his own budget proposal, which brings the budget into balance in five years. It is totally impractical and would be devastating to the economy, as our society is too addicted to spending to remove so much so fast. No serious economist endorsed it and it only got 18 votes in the Senate – mostly by Republicans who wanted to show their credibility on spending.

Do I think that kind of exercise was productive? No. Championing those kinds of discretionary spending cuts is bad for the brand for swing voters and it is unlikely that any bipartisan budget effort is going to want your thoughts after putting that out.

For me, the most important moment in understanding Paul is his vote – not once, but twice – a year apart – against Paul Ryan’s budget.

Ryan’s budget is a thoughtful framework that doesn’t focus on balance in the near term in the service of economic growth. It accomplishes many of the goals that Paul wants. Certainly, the massive cuts in discretionary spending would leave the government a lot less able to bully people. The health care reform ideas are in line with what he has recommended. It also doesn’t raise taxes and all-but-repeals the big health care law. To be fair, Paul wants the budget balanced sooner and wants more defense cuts. I have no problem with these views.

However, this is a budget that actually passed the House and had decent support in the U.S. Senate. No, it will not become law at this time. But when it came up for a vote this year, he, two other conservative and two moderate Republicans voted against it. (moderates thought it too severe, conservatives thought it didn’t go far enough)

I was so disappointed that he voted against it. I guess this unrealistic budget wasn’t unrealistic enough for him (or Sens. Lee and Cruz).  

But to this I would say, “Exactly what is your theory of how we rein in the budget? Wait until we get 50 other senators like you?”

I understand his supporters would say, “He would have voted for it if it would have passed the Senate and been signed by the president.”

Perhaps. But what message are you sending to others that you will need to collaborate with? Or do you ever intend to collaborate?


One of the most interesting articles about Paul is from the wonderful regular “Lexington” column that the Economist has about American politics. Their take on his famous drones filibuster:

Mr Paul’s question was a triumph of populism over substance. Drone strikes at home may make Americans shiver, but have never happened: authorities are quite capable of grabbing (or killing) suspects on home soil without unmanned planes. Sadly Mr Paul sought no answers about the legality of drone strikes overseas-ie, the sort that do happen-perhaps because most Americans support them.

The article finishes with a great take on his prospects for a national coalition:

Look closely, and Rand Paul is trying to build a coalition that can win even in a two-party world. In the South he has courted evangelicals and gun-rights absolutists. In New Hampshire he warned against being “the party of white people”. He has wooed civil libertarians, the young and blacks, defending the due-process rights of terror suspects, attacking rigid drug laws and clarifying (after some confusion) that he thinks it proper for civil-rights laws to cover private businesses.

That makes Mr Paul hard to pin down. He is to the left of his party and on its hard right at the same time: he has written a draft federal budget so radical that just 18 senators voted for it. He can be quirky, using a Senate hearing with an environmental regulator to rant about low-flush lavatories. He can be a bully: asking the same regulator if she was pro-choice on abortion, despite opposing choice for consumers. Sometimes he bravely tells the truth; sometimes he panders shamelessly. He is definitely not his dad. But like his dad, it is hard to see him as president.

I agree that it is hard to see him as president. I believe people like to pick a president who has accomplished many things, especially when they have been given power by the public. This is one reason why we like choosing successful governors.

Rand Paul, since he entered the Senate in 2011, hasn’t accomplished anything other than self-promotion. He will certainly say that he needs to be president to get things done. However, if you look at the sensible EPA reform legislation he authored, there is no reason why such a bill can’t pass the senate. However, in style and substance, he has decided to go against most people in the Senate rather than try to get things passed. If he doesn’t change his ways, his legislative legacy might merely be a post office also.

Lastly, I will offer this to conservative activists torn by the forces of compromise and strong principles. There is a model for standing up for Paul’s ideas and actually doing things. It’s my favorite senator, Tom Coburn. Coburn, like Congressman Ron Paul, is called, “Dr. No” for the same reasons. He’s a diehard conservative that has won the praise of Jim DeMint and would never be on Senator Cruz’s “squish” list. He was one of the 18 who voted for Rand Paul’s fantastic budget. However, he has the respect of both sides.

Why? He’s a budget expert. He has created a “bible” of hundreds of billions in wasteful spending that he carries around. He was invited to participate in the Simpson-Bowles debt-reduction commission and his cuts were included and approved – even by Democrats. He has sneaked in audits of the government that provide all the specifics for the high-level goals in Rand Paul’s first book. He even authored the bill in 2006 that put government spending and employment data in the public domain, so great tools like last week’s Open The Books website and smartphone apps could be released. In short, Coburn is every bit a conservative as Rand Paul – even identifying cuts in the defense budget that Paul cites in his first book – but one that actually gets things done and has the respect of all. But to do that, you’ve got to show you’re open to compromise. So once his cuts were included in Simpson-Bowles, he voted for the final report even though Paul Ryan and others did not – dooming it. But that vote showed the other side that he was a man they could work with, and that he – and his bible of spending cuts – were welcome in any budget negotiations.

So there is another way. I hope that if Senator Paul wants to accomplish something, that he spends some time with Senator Coburn. He could learn how to make progress on the many worthy goals in his books. Until he does that, he’s just another right-wing sensation, and will crash and burn like so many others.

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