Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) delivered a tea party response to the State of the Union that was a mixed bag. At its best it reflected real movement on the right in favor of immigration reform; at its worst it was just plain weird. However, political opponents should be wary; Paul’s style is deceptively effective, projecting a calm and almost sweet demeanor (albeit one sometimes wildly at odds with what he is actually saying).

Sen. Rand Paul with his father, former Texas congressman Ron Paul-Chris Hall/Washington Post

Ironically, he was least convincing on the topic for which he is best known. He promised to balance the budget in five years, but what he offered was not promising:

It is time for a new bipartisan consensus.


It is time Democrats admit that not every dollar spent on domestic programs is sacred. And it is time Republicans realize that military spending is not immune to waste and fraud.


Where would we cut spending; well, we could start with ending all foreign aid to countries that are burning our flag and chanting death to America.


The President could begin by stopping the F-16s and Abrams tanks being given to the radical Islamic government of Egypt.

Not only should the sequester stand, many pundits say the sequester really needs to be at least $4 trillion to avoid another downgrade of America’s credit rating.


Both parties will have to agree to cut, or we will never fix our fiscal mess.

Surely he must know that foreign aid is a microscopic part of the the budget and that Republicans already accepted significant cuts in the military to the tune of $487 billion over 10 years before sequestration. To pretend that cutting foreign aid and national security will solve our problem is absurd and all too reminiscent of the phony frugality of which he complains.

Our debt is more than $16 trillion; the entire 2012 Pentagon budget is $553 billion, less than 19 percent of our federal budget. And foreign aid? That was about a tenth the size of defense spending. You could eliminate them both and hardly make a dent in the debt. So let’s hope his budget is devoid of gimmicks and addresses the real driver of the debt, entitlement spending.

On the other hand, Paul reverted to reality-based governance when it came to immigration reform. He told his audience: “We must be the party that sees immigrants as assets, not liabilities. We must be the party that says, ‘If you want to work, if you want to be an American, we welcome you.'” Great. Now he should put some meat on the bones, tell us if he supports the Gang of 8 plan or something else, and what that something else is.

Then, however, Paul seems to hint at another agenda, saying he is going to insist on trial by jury and search-and-seizure protection. Hmm. We have those things, right? Does he mean for Gitmo detainees? Terrorists on the battlefield? And he objects to “secret lists” of Americans to be killed “without trial.” Does he think we can’t kill an American-turned -jihadist on the battlefield?

Then again he was back on terra firma with a plea for school choice, putting special emphasis on “poor children in a crumbling system of hopelessness.” Good for him.

Some of what Paul says is simplistic to the point of being misleading. Some of what he says is daft. And some of what he says is says is compelling and important, albeit vague. If he wants to start building credibility he will have to start spelling out what he means; depending on what he does mean, that may be problematic. It is comparatively easy to be a gadfly in the Senate. It is much harder to master detail, present credible legislation and accomplish aims, not simply recite compelling political theory. It is not clear yet which route Rand Paul will choose.