Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) continually asserts that his brand of libertarian domestic and foreign policy and an anti-government message will attract young people and grow the GOP. There is little evidence to believe this is true.
Simply talking to young audiences doesn’t mean Rand Paul will win them over, any more than he won over African Americans at his Howard University address. Lecturing nonconservative audiences about history and the evils of government has little appeal.
So far his attraction among young people is minimal. The Post/ABC poll had him at 11 percent support overall and 10 percent among voters aged 18 to 49. Not only is his youth vote negligible, but there is every reason to believe his message – you’re on your own pal, the government is out to get you, etc. – turns off other voters. He gets 9 percent of women voters, 9 of evangelicals and 8 of those who oppose or have no opinion of the tea party.
It is easy to see why when you consider what his strident message to young people is. In a piece for the Intercollegiate Review he spends almost all of his 1,700+ words on a strictly anti-government message. He repeats the same catch phrases over and over. “America has drifted away from the constitutional principles of limited government, separation of powers, and individual liberty.” And again: “What our country needs is the kind of system that made America so prosperous, with a limited government that largely does not interfere with individuals and their pursuit of happiness but allows people to be rewarded for their hard work and creativity.” Still again: “I also encourage you to study what great thinkers have had to say about both individual liberty and personal responsibility.” Not done yet: “America needs a new generation of leaders to defend the Constitution, defend individual liberty—including our first liberty, religious freedom—and defend the freedom and prosperity that have made our country the beacon of the world.”
For the average blue-collar American, working parent, Hispanic immigrant, suburban mom and African American inner city voter, none of this means much of anything. Words, words, words. And compare those empty, cold assertions of individualism with the nuanced policy ideas, the robust version of civil society and the plethora of proposals you get from GOP Sens. Mike Lee and Marco Rubio, Reps. Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor, and nearly every governor. In contrast to Rand Paul, they acknowledge concrete issues, explain why liberal solutions haven’t worked and offer their own.
And when Rand Paul denies that Republicans lack policy solutions, his entire rebuttal amount to this: “Our proposals will lead the way to more prosperity, more stable families, political decisions made at the local level, a dollar that holds up in a global marketplace, an education system that puts students and parents first, a vibrant culture supported by religious institutions, and opportunities for young people like you to grow and lead America into a renewed age of freedom.” More empty catch phrases. Where are his policies? His innovative ideas? You’d never know even if you stuck with his more than 1,700 words.
After Rand Paul’s Howard University speech, former Democratic congressman, now Republican Artur Davis observed:
[H]is mantra that “I want a government that leaves you alone” had no chance of resonating with students who view government as a source of student loans and Pell Grants, and to whom being left alone might well mean being uninsured during a health crisis. Paul avoided making the case that a conservative agenda might actually outperform liberal goals in the area of poverty or education. And in a university setting that teaches the value of offering evidence for one’s propositions, Paul mentioned no specific policies that would address the interests of people about to enter an uncertain job market while straining to pay down the debt of financing a degree.
In other words, a would-be president who has talked forcefully about his party’s need to refashion itself did no more than repeat a narrative that neither black nor white conservatives have managed to sell to black audiences. Paul had a chance to demonstrate something bolder than the willingness to endure a hostile crowd: that is, if he had the nimbleness to couch his arguments in the interests of the people he was trying to reach; and the empathy to show that economic inequality, entrenched poverty, and the rising numbers of blacks under 35 who aren’t reaching their parents[‘] levels of economic performance are the kinds of things he worries about.
Maybe Rand Paul should have listened then. It seems he is repeating the same errors.
There are a couple reasons why Rand Paul may be sticking to such a non-substantive message. One is that he has no tangible policy ideas. He entered politics late in life. Spent his life in the shadow of his father’s anti-government rhetoric and conspiracy theories. Maybe he doesn’t know that much and hasn’t though that much about public policy.
Another is that he has policy ideas but if he gets into details he’s going to sound like his father (no troops overseas, no international aid, audit the Fed, retreat from the world, no intrusive civil rights legislation, no FDA, give Iran a chance). He misses, I strongly suspect, where even the GOP base is going these days. The right is bubbling over with new ideas, policy reforms, and innovative proposals for promoting growth, furthering opportunity, combating freedom, improving education and more. For every issue Rand Paul’s answer is a blanket condemnation of government and a pledge to leave people alone. That might work well for an upper class ophthalmologist, but it’s going to sound cold and unresponsive to the vast majority of voters.
The mainstream of the party – like the country – is not interested in going back to the pre-New Deal era. Rand Paul sounds like he wants to go back to the pre-Progressive era. (Someone should ask his views on child labor, the SEC and Social Security – for or against?)
Politics, to the dismay of the far right, is not an academic debating society or a course on moral philosophy. You don’t have to believe in giving away “free stuff” to understand voters have real problems and they want to hear what pols are going to do to address them. Conservatives who can appeal to an electoral majority understand how to translate conservative ideas into tangible policies that actually help people.
Maybe Rand Paul will grow his political vocabulary and advance more interesting ideas. Right now his message is flat and empty. That might attract a narrow band of 20-something, a-religious males, but is unlikely to engage the rest of the country. That – more than his anti-Israel outbursts and string of character issues (plagiarism, hiring a pro-Confederacy aid, baseless accusations against Christian Zionists) – poses a problem, as it did for his father, in reaching beyond the narrow band of libertarians.