Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) spoke late Friday afternoon at the Conservative Political Action Conference. It was very similar to last year’s speech, which suggests one of the many problems with the speech is its generic praise of “liberty” and an other-worldly take on the government as our real enemy.
First, it was filled with rubbish. In going for a big applause line from a room of 20-somethings, Paul suggested that the NSA is listening to all our phone calls. This is false, and it is disturbing if he doesn’t understand the difference between metadata and the content of phone calls. The portrait of a government on the verge of tyranny might stir his father’s former fans, but it is quite divorced from what the NSA does and whether its program is constitutional.
Does Rand Paul really think the Constitution doesn’t allow enemy combatants to be held at Gitmo? Apparently so – and he thinks the poor detainees are like innocent minorities with whom we should commiserate: “Justice cannot occur without a trial,” he said. “That fact should be abundantly clear to any group that has ever been persecuted. You can be a minority by the color of your skin or the shade of your ideology. Anyone who has ever paddled upstream, anyone who has ever been [in the] minority of thought or religion, anyone who has ever taught their children at home or sought to pray to God without permission should be alarmed that any government might presume to imprison without trial.”
That’s the sort of condescending talk (Hispanics should be in favor of letting terrorists go free or come to the homeland for trial?) that will go over well with non-traditional Republicans? Even if it does find some takers on college campuses, it will infuriate the large mass of Republicans who increasingly take national security seriously. He really is planning on running to President Obama’s left on these issues.
Second, Paul’s spiel is certainly indifferent to if not at odds with what is going on in the world. Should we be alarmed that Iran is getting the bomb, Russia is invading a neighbor and there is a war of genocidal proportions in Syria? No, the greatest danger is the government’s (nonexistent) eavesdropping on your phone calls. Not only is his shtick divorced from world events, but it also is entirely alien to the experience and concerns of most Americans who are worried about health care, the economy, the middle-class squeeze, etc. Other than people exactly like those in the ballroom, who is going to find this the most compelling message out of all the Republican contenders’ agendas? He keeps saying he will reach out to African Americans and Hispanics, but the crowd that love him was overwhelmingly white and male. And if he is serious about immigration reform (he told Silicon Valley he was), he kept it to himself.
Third, there is no sign that his message and appeal will be any different than his father’s. He is after all a libertarian, not a mainstream conservative, and his disinclination to speak about anything but his paranoid vision of the government leaves little room for reform or problem-solving. This one-note fear of government has limited selling power in the Republican Party, most especially during times of rising international threats.
Fourth, he’s still sporting his jeans look, which he had last time. It’s condescending to the young people — who were by the way all dressed in suits and ties — and it’s decidedly unpresidential. Is he going to slum his way through a campaign? It’s the sort of cheap appeal to young voters that Ronald Reagan, for example, never needed. He provided a hopeful, concrete agenda that offered young people an optimistic vision. If you don’t have that, you try to get by with jeans and a lot of pop music references.
And finally, when Paul says he doesn’t care about electing Republicans — instead preferring “lovers of liberty” — you have to wonder why a Republican Party dedicated to electing majorities and governing would find that appealing. Once again, the CPAC niche isn’t broad enough to win a middle-sized state’s primary, as his father demonstrated, let alone the nomination.
Rand Paul’s problem is that by offering such a stark libertarian view he severely limits his appeal. What if you want limited government and a robust military? What if you want limited government and a patient-centered health care? What if you want limited government and education reform? What if you want limited government and someone who will stop Iran from getting the bomb? There are two or three candidates, at least, who you’d look to first.
Rand Paul is the perfect CPAC speaker, but for this very reason his presidential appeal is not yet clear. In the real world there are problems that need attending to, and Paul simply doesn’t seem like someone you’d entrust with the office of the presidency. You can’t argue with Paul that the president should “love liberty,” but we elect someone to execute the laws and to govern responsibly. What evidence is there that Paul will be able to do that? The last time a freshman senator and ideologue with no executive experience ran for president it didn’t work out too well. In the search for simple competence — is that too much to ask? — Rand Paul wouldn’t be at the top of most people’s list.