Politicians talk a lot, and the more a politician talks, the greater the risk he or she will say something regrettable. If you run your mouth for 11 hours at a stretch, as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is wont to do, the chance of putting your foot in it goes up correspondingly.
So maybe it was statistically inevitable that Paul would cover himself in the opposite of glory by declaring, during his Monday Senate speech against National Security Agency counterterrorism surveillance, that “people here in town think I’m making a huge mistake. Some of them, I think, secretly want there to be an attack on the United States so they can blame it on me.”
Amid the fury of his Republican colleagues, who were the implicit targets of this self-pitying smear (and annoyed that Paul was raising money off such grandstanding for his presidential campaign), Paul admitted on Fox News that he might have strayed into “hyperbole” and “impugning people’s motives.”
Then again, what if hyperbole, combined with a certain passive-aggressiveness, is not incidental to Paul’s political style but essential? This is hardly the first time the presidential candidate has found himself explaining away an impolitic surfacing of his internal monologue. He’s still trying to live down his 2010 comments implying that the 1964 Civil Rights Act interfered with private property rights, not to mention some recent petulance toward female TV hosts.
At its best, libertarianism is a cheerful, optimistic approach to politics, brimming with confidence about what men and women can achieve when left to their own devices, and, accordingly, with fresh ideas about how to meet social goals through individual initiative and free markets. The Republican Party could well benefit from adding such approaches to its platform on issues from gay rights to law enforcement. Democrats could, too, for that matter.
As is becoming increasingly apparent, however, Paul represents a darker, angrier corner of the libertarian imagination, the part that’s not just concerned by government overreach in pursuit of legitimate objectives — fighting terrorism, say — but positively haunted by spies, war “hawks” and maybe killer drones. Also, the Federal Reserve, which Paul would subject to an “audit.”
Paul has tried mightily to mainstream his brand of politics, distinguishing it from that of his father, Ron, who, at last check, was promoting an investment firm in TV commercials by warning of a pending economic apocalypse that will supposedly be “especially rough on seniors.” In this, the son has been enabled by media coverage labeling him “the most interesting man in politics” (Politico, Time) on the basis of his dissent from GOP orthodoxy on drugs and national security. Nevertheless, the apple did not fall far from the tree.
As the makers of those Ron Paul TV ads understand, the American public is genuinely troubled in these uncertain times. Objectively, though, we remain prosperous, free and powerful — especially in comparison with almost every other nation on Earth. There’s a bright future ahead, if we stay focused on our many advantages and adopt practical solutions to our many challenges. To this difficult-but-hopeful situation, the Kentucky ophthalmologist brings a strangely acute sense of personal grievance and encourages voters to get in touch with their inner victims, too. “I’m not going to take it any more!” he cries.
Is Paul actually listening to his own words, as he regularly implies that the U.S. government is a greater threat to its people than al-Qaeda and the Islamic State combined? “Some people are so fearful, they’re like, how could we get terrorists?” he mused in another moment of hyperbolic motive-impugning the other day. “We’ll be overrun with terrorists, and ISIS will be in every drug store and in every house in America if we don’t get rid of the Constitution, if we don’t let the Fourth Amendment lapse, if we don’t just let everybody pass out warrants.”
No one says this, or anything close to it. What Congress has been having, for the most part, is a debate about the age-old tension between security and freedom and how to manage it, realistically, without shredding the Constitution. Then, over here, you have Rand Paul.
“The point I was trying to make is that I think people do use fear to try to get us to give up our liberty,” Paul noted in further explanation of his remarks about “some people’s” secret wish for a terror attack they can blame on him. No doubt. Another thing people do with fear is inflame it and direct it, recklessly, against “the spy state” or “the Washington Machine,” without offering practical alternatives — then hit you up for a campaign contribution.