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The Most Interesting Man in the Senate

Rand Paul reshapes the national debate.

Matt Welch
May 9, 2011

The Tea Party Goes to Washington, by Rand Paul, Center Street, 255 pages, $21.99

“On the Democrat side, we have a proposal to cut about $5 billion to $6 billion for the rest of the year. To put that in perspective, we borrow $4 billion a day. So the other side is offering up cuts equal to one day’s borrowing.…Now, on our side of the aisle, I think we have done more, the cuts are more significant, but they also pale in comparison to the problem. If we were to adopt the president’s approach, we would have a $1.65 trillion deficit in one year. If we were to adopt our approach, we’re going to have a $1.55 trillion deficit in one year. I think both approaches do not significantly alter or delay the crisis that’s coming.…I recently proposed $500 billion in cuts, and when I went home and spoke to the people of my state, spoke to those from the Tea Party, they said $500 billion is not enough. And they’re right. $500 billion is a third of one year’s problem. Up here that’s way too bold, but it’s not even enough.” —Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on the Senate floor, March 9, 2011

It’s getting hard to remember now, but there was a time for a little while there when a fair number of libertarians were worried that Rand Paul was shaping up to be another Beltway sellout. There was his post-primary rapprochement with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the powerful and seemingly eternal Senate minority leader who had hand-picked Paul’s opponent to replace retiring Sen. Jim Bunning. There was Paul’s odd August 2010 USA Today op-ed piece, titled “Rand Paul, Libertarian? Not Quite,” which smacked of a self-conscious distancing from the word. And then there was his pre-election meeting in Washington, D.C., with representatives of the neoconservative establishment that had tried to kneecap him in the Republican primary, including Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol, American Enterprise Institute scholar Thomas Donnelly, and former Iraq Provisional Authority spokesman Dan Senor.

“Well, yes, it looks like Rand Paul is indeed a neocon stooge,” Antiwar.com columnist Justin Raimondo wrote after that meeting. “The great danger is that the election of Rand Paul to the US Senate will change the ideological complexion of libertarianism, as it is perceived by the public, and quite possibly succeed in derailing the ongoing work of his father and the Campaign for Liberty in challenging the neocons’ hegemony in the GOP when it comes to foreign policy.”

Raimondo’s fears may have been stated hyperbolically, but they were far from marginal among the supporters of limited government, particularly the fans of Paul’s famous father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). At online forums such as The Daily Paul, in the comments section of reason’s blog Hit & Run, in libertarian-friendly D.C. watering holes, there was a persistent murmur of doubt: Was Rand Paul riding his father’s coattails (and national fundraising network) to a victory that would produce just another foreign policy belligerent and libertarian squish on Capitol Hill? 

Those fears began evaporating into thin air in the span of seven minutes on election night. That’s how long it took Sen. Paul to deliver his victory speech, a piece of oratory notable for its full-throated defense of free markets and limited government—and for not once mentioning the word Republican.

(Article continues below video.)


“Tonight there’s a Tea Party tidal wave,” Paul said at the outset of his remarks. “It’s a message that I will carry with me on day one. It’s a message of fiscal sanity. It’s a message of limited—limited—constitutional government and balanced budgets.…America is exceptional, but it is not inherently so.…America will remain great if and when we understand…that government cannot create prosperity.…Do we wish to live free, or be enslaved by debt? Do we believe in the individual, or do we believe in the state? Thomas Jefferson wrote that government is best that governs least. Likewise freedom is best when enjoyed by the most.” 

The next day, all across the cable news outlets, the most prominent Tea Party politician in America was confidently doing the unthinkable: explaining why his Republican Party, at long last, needed to get behind cutting military spending, just as surely as Democrats needed to cut domestic spending (a one-two formulation Paul has used in just about every public appearance since election night). Within four months, Paul’s heretical ideas had gained enough traction to recruit other Republican senators, including Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Mike Crapo of Idaho, and a half-dozen others.

Even while being sworn in, Paul gave notice that the most radical of the budget-cutting notions being floated by the new GOP hotheads in the House of Representatives—totaling $61 billion, maybe even $100 billion this fiscal year—were utterly inadequate to the gravity of America’s crisis. “In January alone I will introduce a one-year, $500 billion spending cut, along with a balanced-budget amendment,” he promised. He delivered on that promise three weeks later, with a bill that proposed ending the Departments of Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development, slashing the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Transportation, and eliminating all foreign aid, including aid to Israel.

Having outflanked the most radical of the incoming Tea Party freshmen in the less temperate House, Paul then—by deed, not word —made a mockery of the much-ballyhooed “roadmap” of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to tackle entitlements and balance the federal budget by 2063. Paul instead wants to balance the budget in five years. In March he unveiled a plan to reduce government spending by $4 trillion relative to President Barack Obama’s long-term budget proposal by ratcheting back spending to fiscal year 2008 levels, eliminating the Department of Commerce (in addition to the ones above), capping and block-granting Medicaid payments to the states, and enacting bold reforms on entitlement spending.

“Entitlements will consume the entire budget within a few decades,” Paul writes in his sprightly new book The Tea Party Goes to Washington. “Entitlements plus interest will consume the entire budget in a little over a decade. Is it any wonder that [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman] Admiral [Mike] Mullen, [Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates and others have said that the biggest threat to our national security is our debt?” What about Rep. Ryan’s plan? Paul is blunt: “We don’t have six decades to fix entitlements.” 

Unlike any other national politician of recent vintage, Rand Paul has the cheerful confidence that confronting entitlements is a political winner. “I don’t think we lost many votes because of my willingness to discuss entitlement reform,” he writes.

Judging by the reactions to his own plans, he may be onto something. Until last November’s elections, the Tea Party “kingmaker” in the U.S. Senate, by acclamation, was Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). He was the one who defined the most radical edge of the fiscal agenda in the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body. But in Rand Paul’s few short months in office, he has seized that distinction. Unveiling his five-year balanced budget and entitlement reform plan, Paul was front and center, and DeMint was at his side.

“My main objection to the PATRIOT Act is that searches that normally require a judge’s warrant are performed with an FBI agent’s letter, a national security letter. I object to these warrantless searches being performed on U.S. citizens. I object to the 200,000 NSL searches that have been performed without a judge’s warrant. I object to over 2 million searches of bank records, called suspicious activity reports, performed on U.S. citizens without a judge’s warrant. In the aftermath of 9/11, our leaders said give us your liberty and we will keep you safe. We would be wise to remember Franklin’s response that those who trade their liberty for security may wind up with neither.…Jefferson wrote that if we had a government of angels we would need no Constitution to protect us. But men are not always angels and I, for one, do not wish to unchain government from the bindings of the Constitution.” —Rand Paul in a YouTube video, February 9, 2011, youtube.com/watch?v=ZSDBswx90Cs

Take a moment to call up the above speech on YouTube. After you’ve watched it, forward it to any friends you might have who suspect that Tea Partiers in general and Rand Paul in particular are reactionary Dick Cheney fans. Americans are not accustomed to a national politician espousing firmly and consistently libertarian ideas, especially those that contradict Republican stereotypes.

In the wake of Paul’s stirring defense of the Fourth Amendment against the encroachments of the PATRIOT Act, The Atlantic’s Chris Good wrote that “Paul has taken up the mantle left behind by a Democrat: Sen. Russ Feingold.” Although this comparison provoked some pushback on the left, Rand Paul has been attracting sporadic praise from the liberal commentariat, even in his darkest political hour: when, after winning his primary election, he got bogged down during an interview with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow (and several follow-up interlocutors) over the issue of whether the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s ban on racial discrimination by private businesses was philosophically justified.

“What is so great about our bloated federal government that when a libertarian threatens to become a senator, otherwise rational and mostly liberal pundits start frothing at the mouth?” the old New Left columnist Robert Scheer wrote at Truthdig. “What Rand Paul thinks about the Civil Rights Act, passed 46 years ago, hardly seems the most pressing issue of social justice before us. It’s a done deal that he clearly accepts. Yet Paul’s questioning the wisdom of a banking bailout that rewards those who shamelessly exploited the poor and vulnerable, many of them racial minorities, is right on target. So too questioning the enormous cost of wars that as he dared point out are conducted in violation of our Constitution and that, I would add, though he doesn’t, prevent us from adequately funding needed social programs.” 

The dead-enders of the Beltway left, however, continued to treat Paul like a mental patient. “By nominating a lunatic,” Center for American Politics blogger Matthew Yglesias wrote after Paul’s primary victory, “Republicans have suddenly taken what should be a hopeless Senate race and turned it into something Democrats can win. At the same time, by nominating a lunatic, Republicans have suddenly raised the odds that a lunatic will represent Kentucky in the United States Senate.” Nor was this sentiment confined to the left. “Rand Paul’s victory in the Kentucky Republican primary is obviously a depressing event for those who support strong national defense and rational conservative politics,” former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote at the time. “How is it that the GOP has lost its antibodies against a candidate like Rand Paul?”

Paul parries these attacks with a bemused but direct engagement; you can see he thinks he’s going to win a long-overdue David vs. Goliath argument. A good portion of his book is spent examining and decrying how the Republican Party became “tainted by neoconservative ideology,” mistaking “national greatness” for a willingness to intervene willy-nilly into the affairs of foreign countries, while tolerating big spending projects at home. “The Tea Party,” Paul claims, “is now a threat to the old Republican guard precisely because its stated principles prevent it from being brought into the neoconservative fold.”

As a minority radical in a minority Republican Senate caucus, in addition to being the most successful Tea Party–branded politician in the country, Paul is engaged in a dual-track education experiment: trying desperately to move the 50-yard line of the national conversation about government spending and debt while trying to bring some robust libertarianism into a decentralized Tea Party movement that has mostly agreed not to talk about foreign policy. Paul repeatedly states in The Tea Party Goes to Washington that this new grassroots uprising will reject neoconservative or Wilsonian foreign policy adventurism, but these are assertions long on faith and short on facts. There has always been a kind of uneasy embrace between hardcore Ron Paul supporters and the more nationalistic types who flock to Tea Party events; Rand Paul’s challenge is to bridge that gap.

“I think libertarian has become a better term than it once was, but it still scares some people, and it’s used by some people to scare others, particularly in the South and different places.…Although I would say that since the George W. Bush era, when the term conservative became somewhat meaningless, now a lot of people—and you’ll see people who probably really are more traditional conservatives —[want] to use the word libertarian because it’s a more distinctive term. So in some ways it has come into better usage now among the common public. But I think people understand constitutional conservative better, at least where I’m from, than they do the word libertarian.” —Rand Paul, interviewed by reason.tv, March 14, 2011

Rand Paul’s practical definition of libertarianism, or “constitutional conservatism” if you prefer, will certainly differ from mine, and maybe from yours. He is very strongly anti-abortion—one of his first acts in the Senate was to co-sponsor the Life Begins at Conception Act—and while I have intellectual respect for the libertarian anti-abortion argument, I don’t agree with it. He does not favor (though rarely discusses) gay marriage; as with abortion, he prefers such things to be handled at the state level. He talks about wanting to “secure the border” in ways that I instinctively recoil from. Why, he doesn’t even want to legalize heroin! 

I mention all this both to add a note of caution and to illustrate the practical absurdity of internecine squabbles over quien es mas libertarian. There is no limited-government faction small enough that it doesn’t want to split itself in two with angry recriminations. Some of this reflects perfectly natural differences in philosophy within a marginal though growing political tendency that is anchored to explicitly philosophical roots. It is normal to compete over the term, over beliefs, over the market share of global libertarianism or whatever you want to call it.

But let’s be honest: This schismatic tendency stems partly from the instinctive crankiness of people who prefer living in the margins, nursing grievances, and hunting down heretics. They have chosen one lodestar, and anyone else casting off light in the darkness runs the risk of being treated like a hostile invader, even if he shares the same last name (and D.C. condo). Vive la difference and all, but it’s a puzzling conception of libertarianism that excludes the first senator in memory to be as anti-war, anti-surveillance, anti–police abuse, anti–big government, and anti-spending as Rand Paul. He has done more to inject libertarian ideas into the Washington debate than any senator I can remember, all within his first three months in office. It’s a remarkable achievement. 

Paul’s approach toward the limited-government big tent in The Tea Party Goes to Washington is to mention and quote from people from all factions within—and sometimes without. He waxes nostalgic about Murray Rothbard, quotes serially from Pat Buchanan, name-checks the Mises Institute, the Cato Institute, reason, The American Spectator, and The American Conservative (whose Jack Hunter helped out with the book). He is similarly open when it comes to certain Republican stars, defending (in a pretty interesting couple of passages) the radical example of Ronald Reagan against his latter-day appropriators, expressing heartfelt gratitude toward social conservative James Dobson, and praising Sarah Palin (whose endorsement in the primary was critical to his success). In the book Paul does still seem a bit cautious about revealing his true ideology, for instance when he confesses fretting before talking to Palin that she might be put off by his libertarianism. (“Oh,” he reports her responding, “we all have a little libertarian in us.”) Meanwhile, he has quickly become Capitol Hill’s leading fire breather on the very libertarian (and very pressing) issues of slashing government spending and debt.

When Nick Gillespie and I interviewed Paul for reason.tv in March, his eyes lit up at the question of whether Sen. DeMint was right to say that you “can’t be a fiscal conservative and not be a social conservative.” DeMint, who was supposed to be the avatar of the Tea Party movement, misread the moment, and Paul seemed to know that. What’s more, Paul isn’t afraid to call his own party out for what happened when they controlled all of Washington.

“Imagine this,” he writes. “What if there had never been a President George W. Bush, and when Bill Clinton left office he was immediately replaced with Barack Obama. Now imagine Obama had governed from 2000 to 2008 exactly as Bush did—doubling the size of government, doubling the debt, expanding federal entitlements and education, starting the Iraq war—the whole works. To make matters worse, imagine that for a portion of that time, the Democrats actually controlled all three branches of government. Would Republicans have given Obama and his party a free pass in carrying out the exact same agenda as Bush? It’s hard to imagine this being the case.” 

What’s next for the Senate’s most interesting man? At press time, there were already rumors of a presidential run, which Paul had not yet got around to denying. Those with a more cynical take on history may note that the graveyards of Washington are littered with the bones of radical freshmen who became domesticated. Paul seems acutely aware of this pitfall.

“Those in Washington are more concerned about furthering their career,” he told reason.tv. “They don’t want to talk about Social Security. In fact, they don’t want me to talk about Social Security, though I’m going to anyway.…But I think politically they’ve miscalculated, because I think people are hungry for someone who will step up and say, ‘This is what’s wrong, and this what I’m going to do to fix it.’ ” 

Matt Welch (matt.welch@reason.com) is reason's editor in chief. To see reason.tv's interview with Rand Paul, conducted by Welch and reason.tv editor Nick Gillespie, go to reason.tv/video/show/rand-paul-interview. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Matt Welch is Editor in Chief, Reason


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