Some liberals who have cheered Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster on civil libertarian grounds have gone out of the way to slam him as otherwise loony, a far-right outcast with whom they’ll not be complimenting in the future. They feign (or actually experience) surprise that they could agree with Paul on anything, let alone a central tenet of their political philosophy.
In fact, Paul supports comprehensive immigration reform. He doesn’t think marriage is a federal issue. He thinks criminalizing nonviolent drug offenses is daft. There may be more there for liberals to like than they are willing to acknowledge. Moreover, to the dismay of conservative hawks, Paul is also much closer to the left on everything from the Iraq war to Guantanamo. But the inclination to typecast and then write off the opposition is too great these days to allow that libertarians cut a path through conservatism that the left should appreciate.
It was no secret before the filibuster that Paul was mulling a presidential run in 2016. Now it is extremely likely. His presence in the race would, I think, have both positive and worrisome consequences for the party.
On one level, his appeal to young voters, social libertarians and immigration reformers would shake up the usual moderate-conservative divide in the GOP. His presence would be a deterrent to immigrant bashing and alter how social conservatism is viewed (pro-life, but agnostic or pro-10th Amendment on marriage).
A fiscal conservative intent on chopping large portions of government will set off a race to the right on fiscal matters, some fret. At a time when the rest of the party is struggling to innovate health care, education and other domestic policies, will a virulent anti-government bent freeze creative thinking and cast the GOP as out of touch with the post-New Deal America? And likewise, will Paul make respectable a deceptively alluring brand of isolationism in a way President Obama could not?
Well, for these very reasons Paul’s presence, I would hope, should force advocates of limited but vigorous government and a robust U.S. presence in their world to step up their game. It should force them to justify their resignation, for example to an Education Department that has done nothing to improve test scores or improve education reform (to the contrary). And on foreign policy it will require a new generation of pro-defense conservatives to explain the need for engagement in the world and to adopt a more fact-based approach to the Middle East.
In sum, we should be smarter about sizing up politicians and considering what to take and what to discard from their array of views. Ideally, alliances can form, dissolve, rearrange themselves and re-form, depending on the issue. We should all place a great premium on finding governing majorities by issue rather than by party loyalty. That’s the way out of gridlock and toward greater civility in politics. And as for the GOP, there is every reason to foster vigorous debate and encourage skilled pols of all stripes to get into the mix. And if we learned anything this week, it is that Rand Paul is a very skilled politician.