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Rand Paul panders at Berkeley

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) went to the University of California at Berkeley to get applause for anti-government, anti-national security rhetoric. Playing to the stereotypical paranoia of government and the identity politics that reverberate in left-wing circles, he told a New York Times reporter, “The first African American president ought to be a little more conscious of the fact of what has happened with the abuses of domestic spying. Martin Luther King was spied upon, civil rights leaders were spied upon, Muhammad Ali was spied upon, antiwar protesters were spied upon.”

This is akin to his equally insulting argument that Jews and African Americans should oppose detention of terrorists at Gitmo because they have historically suffered injustice. African American conservatives like Artur Davis have criticized such statements as condescending and pandering.

Paul’s arguments predictably generated criticism from conservatives. Former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, who has formed a PAC to combat Rand Paul-like isolationism, voiced disgust with his verbiage. He said tersely, “What race has to do with espionage is beyond me.” He is supportive of the NSA surveillance program as necessary to combat jihadist terror but has criticized the administration from the right, saying it is “doing a terrible job of explaining what NSA does and why.”

Steven Bradbury, a former Justice Department attorney and expert on legal issues surrounding anti-terrorism efforts tells Right Turn, “It’s precisely because of the background history of improper domestic surveillance by the executive branch decades ago that today’s NSA programs are now subject to the most rigorous oversight of any agency — not only requiring repeated review and approval by independent Article III judges, but also pervasive oversight by the intelligence committees of Congress, the Justice Department, and multiple inspectors general.”

Even more disturbing, Paul is so paranoid about non-existing abuse in the program, which has been defended by Democrats, Republicans and an independent review board, that he “[doesn’t] care if there’s never been any evidence of abuse with the N.S.A., they should not be collecting the data.” This sort of ideological attachment to anti-defense measures harkens back to his father’s mindset, in which valuable institutions (e.g. the Federal Reserve) and objectives (e.g. securing the border) become fodder for conspiracy theories.

Rand Paul, of course, did not tell the Berkeley crowd he is staunchly pro-life or thinks marriage should be limited to “one man and one woman.” He did not revisit his skepticism about civil rights legislation, nor did he detail his budget ideas that would repeal Obamacare and  eliminate the departments of Commerce, Education, Energy and Housing and Urban Development. Although he talked to students about civil liberties, he omitted mention of his staunch opposition to any form of gun regulation. For him freedom means coal plants, oil companies and pipeline manufacturers should be freed from the heavy hand of government. He has not made that pitch at Berkeley. In a very real sense, he is trying to pull a fast one on students, concealing his views on a majority of issues while trying to snag them with some anti-government trinkets on national security.

Paul seems certain that these audiences won’t care or won’t know about all his conservative positions and would actually turn out to vote for him, a far-fetched proposition. If Paul did talk about these things, which he will be forced to do in the GOP presidential primary, he would actually test whether a few applause lines based on dismissiveness of the jihadist threat to the United States is sufficient to win over enough non-Republicans to replace the scores of those who would find his anti-national security positions dangerous. It is very likely, in the end, that his pandering in Berkeley will come back to bite him in Iowa, while his Iowa campaign themes would make it impossible for him to win votes from liberal college kids.

Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who has studied the conservative-libertarian divide and analyzed GOP opinion, tells me, “Many of these ‘swing’ Millennials harbor centrist or liberal views on many issues other than gay marriage and defense. Thus, once the so-called barrier to voting GOP is removed these voters will still consider the GOP unacceptable, simply on other grounds.” He cautions, “Whether Paul even has a chance to break down these barriers on social issues is debatable. His stance is quite muted. He’s pro-life and anti-gay marriage. Simply saying he will soft pedal these issues won’t really do – that’s essentially what McCain and Romney already did and it didn’t work.” He concludes, ” The way to break through on these issues with these voters is to embrace their stance wholeheartedly – and that undeniably would hurt Paul in the primary season a lot and in the general election somewhat, depending on who the Dems nominate.” So in the end, Olsen predicts, “There’s no way he takes that risk, and without that his attempt to straddle the evangelical-secular Millennial/Gen X professional divide will come to naught.”

For now Paul gets plaudits from the New York Times and Berkeley students. However, his attempt to ingratiate himself with them, not by offering a conservative and pro-reform agenda but by running to Obama’s left and stoking paranoia about national security, is unlikely to please conservative primary voters. On the bright side, a failed primary run may once and for all rid the GOP of the scourge of the conspiracy-minded Paul family’s presidential ambitions.