Rand Paul’s ‘libertarianish’ revolution

A ‘libertarianish’ revolution

Rand Paul’s ideological heritage is his greatest asset — and his biggest challenge.

Published on April 9, 2015


Here we go again with presidential politics in the Live Free or Die state, with a man named Dr. Paul making his pitch in this historic town hall across from a vintage gazebo.

Above: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) officially kicked off his presidential campaign Tuesday in Louisville. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

There’s hardly a place in America more receptive to Dr. Paul’s libertarian message, which drew big crowds in the 2008 and 2012 campaigns. But this time it’s a different Dr. Paul — not 79-year-old libertarian hero Ron but his crafty, ambitious son Rand.

“Do we have any lovers of liberty in here?” the 52-year-old freshman senator from Kentucky asked Wednesday as he took the stage, and the “Stand with Rand” supporters standing all around him cheered affirmatively.

“When the founders of New Hampshire came up with the motto ‘Live Free or Die,’ they didn’t leave a lot of wiggle room,” Paul said. “I came to New Hampshire to announce that I will fight for your right to be left alone.”

Make or Break: Presidential candidates are a breed apart, often propelled by traits that have shaped their careers and have deep roots in their personal histories. In the coming weeks, The Post will explore a key characteristic for each of the leading contenders that could help make him or her the country’s next commander in chief -- or sink their presidential ambitions.

Also in this series:
Ted Cruz: Principled or know-it-all?
Marco Rubio: A man in a hurry
Mike Huckabee: Is this folksy showman willing to get meaner?
Rick Perry: Can he close the deal?
Hillary Clinton: She won't back down. Or go away.
Jeb Bush: A clan of ferocious competitors returns to the fray
Chris Christie: The human opera takes the stage

The Pauls are the other political dynasty in presidential politics, and if they’re not quite the Bushes or Clintons, they’re still a recognizable brand, one crackling with intensity and quirky appeal.

Rand Paul’s ability to sell himself as the most libertarian of the presidential candidates — defending civil liberties at home and opposing military adventurism and nation-building abroad — is what can set him apart from his rivals. But those unconventional ideas could also box him in. Libertarians don’t win national elections, unless you count Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and 1804.

Still, Rand Paul’s greatest asset is the ideological jet fuel that helped his father get more than 2 million votes in the last set of Republican primaries. The son wants to convert that stuff to something less volatile and explosive. In his hands, it’s ideological kerosene.

Rand Paul is a more nimble, less predictable, more pragmatic politician than his father, who said “nay” so often in Congress that he was known as “Dr. No.” The younger Paul is an ophthalmologist who has won just one primary and general election and is still growing into his identity as a politician. But it’s clear he has been shifting closer to mainstream Republican positions, particularly on national defense, going so far as to call for a bigger Pentagon budget.

He’s even hedged on the “libertarian” label. In a recent tweet he wrote: “I’m a constitutional conservative. Libertarianish. Have a foot in both camps.”

This is an aspiring commander in chief walking a very fine line.

In Rand Paul’s universe, there is always further reading. This has been the case since he was a kid. His father delivered babies by day and read books by night, devouring libertarian classics such as Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged” — he had a valuable first edition on his shelf — and Friedrich Hayek’s treatise on totalitarianism, “The Road to Serfdom.”

Randal Paul, known as Randy, was the middle of five children and the kid most interested in his father’s ideas. “He read every book his father had,” says Mary Jane Smith, a former campaign manager for Ron Paul.

The son, who declined to be interviewed for this article, knew exactly what his father perceived as significant in those books: “Ron doesn’t like to lend any of his books, because he underlines them,” says Rand’s mother, Carol Paul.

Paul, on Capitol Hill in March. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post) For this series, Post photojournalists used a phone app with filters to capture the candidates as potential voters might.

Ron Paul ran for Congress the first time in 1974, and young Rand, 11, knocked on doors to try to help his dad get elected. He’d listen to his father’s side of radio interviews over the phone. When people came to the house to talk politics, “I was always very comfortable with the adult conversation,” he later recounted. He traveled with his family to the rowdy 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City and got a delicious taste of national politics.

“From the age of eleven, I followed my father everywhere. I listened to every speech and interview, thousands of them. Are individualists born or nurtured? I think I was both,” Rand Paul wrote in the dedication of his book “Government Bullies: How Everyday Americans Are Being Harassed, Abused, and Imprisoned by the Feds.”

By his own account, he cut his intellectual teeth on Ayn Rand, then moved on to Dostoevsky, and then the free-market fundamentalism of the Austrian school of economics represented by Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard — his father’s favorites, too.

These authors became lifelong intellectual guides. At the end of his book “The Tea Party Goes to Washington,” he lists five “must-read classics in the cause of liberty”: Rand’s “Atlas,” Hayek’s “Road,” von Mises’s “Human Action,” Rothbard’s “Conceived in Liberty” and Barry Goldwater’s “The Conscience of a Conservative.”

The Paul political brand is not personality-based. It’s all about the ideas. And the key idea is that liberty cannot easily coexist with big government.

Rand Paul with his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), at the Capitol in 2011. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
A family snapshot from the 1960s, of a uniformed Ron Paul, then an Air Force doctor, with his toddler son Rand. (Family photo)
The Paul family with Ronald Reagan at the 1976 Republican National Convention. Rand Paul is at right. From left are Rand's brother Robert; his mother, Carol; and his sisters Lori and Joy. (Family photo)

Rand Paul grew up in Lake Jackson, Tex., in a part of the world where the libertarian philosophy is second nature for a lot of people. “This is Texas, my dear,” Mary Jane Smith says. “Get out of my life, get out of my house, get out of my pocketbook.”

Lake Jackson is a company town. The company was Dow, which arrived at the dawn of World War II to build chemical plants along the Brazos River as it slithers into the gulf.

Architect Alden Dow, the son of the founder of the company, scratched out a town amid a hardwood forest at a remove from the heavy industry of the chemical plant. The core of Lake Jackson has small-town charm, with curving streets, tidy housing subdivisions and a precious little downtown retail district, where you might find yourself at the intersection of This Way and That Way.

The Pauls moved to Lake Jackson in 1968, raising their five kids in a comfortable home on Blossom Street in a neighborhood shaded by live oaks draped in Spanish moss. The kids could ride their bikes to school.

In high school, Rand was a varsity swimmer and played two years of football. But he wasn’t very big, and his mother remembers coaches saying, “We’re waiting for him to grow.”

Marc Monical, Rand’s close friend since elementary school, says: “We weren’t the tallest guys in the group, so you had to be scrappy. Rand was very competitive.”

All the Paul kids became libertarians, according to Rand’s older brother, Ronnie Paul: “Nobody strayed in our family. Nobody believes the government’s going to help you.”

Rand took that belief with him to Baylor University, where he joined a group called Young Conservatives of Texas.

“I joined YCT because it was an ideological group,” he writes in “The Tea Party Goes to Washington.” “They believed in limited, constitutional government regardless of party affiliation. My conservatism was, and is, more philosophical in nature than partisan, and I am a Republican precisely because I believe my party is supposed to stand for particular principles rooted in liberty.”

He traced his father’s path, going to medical school at Duke. When he was a surgical resident in Atlanta, his friends called him “Doogie Howser” because he still looked like a teenager.

Unlike his four siblings, he made a life for himself far from Texas. Rand and his wife, Kelley — who originally became interested in him at a party in 1989 when she overheard him discussing Dostoevsky — settled in Bowling Green, Ky., in Kelley’s home state, where they’ve raised three sons.

Paul hands Kelvin David Bautista, 3, back to his mother, Paulina Garcia, at a clinic in Salama, Guatemala, where he went with a team of doctors to do pro bono eye care, mostly cataract surgeries and checkups, in August. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Kelley was the one who decided that “Randy” should have the more grown-up name of “Rand.”

“We used to sit around the pool with our wives and friends, and we would be reading Sports Illustrated, debating on who would be the number-one draft choice, and Rand would be reading a book by Thomas Jefferson,” says his friend Rob Porter, a banker in Bowling Green. “Rand’s a very engaging guy, but he’s not going to be the life of a cocktail party.”

Paul, Porter and two other friends, Greg Stivers and John Grise, both of whom are judges, often golfed together at Bowling Green Country Club.

“The only time I’ve seen him get upset is when he can’t keep the ball in the fairway,” says Grise, a state circuit court judge.

Paul became an anti-tax activist in the quiet college town of Bowling Green, but he was a long way from the nexus of Kentucky political power and didn’t seem interested in running for political office. He served as an adviser to his father when Ron Paul, who had been out of Congress for more than a decade, ran successfully in 1996 for his old congressional seat.

A decade later, Ron Paul ran for president and became a phenomenon as he talked about anti-American sentiment abroad being “blowback” from aggressive American military actions. That tapped into the antiwar libertarian streak in the electorate, and suddenly the campaign was awash in cash and drawing big crowds. Rand would often introduce his father.

“I’d like to welcome you, the sons and daughters of liberty, to the revolution,” the younger Paul said at a “second Boston Tea Party” event in December 2007. Suddenly, he was becoming his father’s ideological heir.

In 2009, Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) announced he would not seek reelection, and with the anti-tax tea party movement surging, Rand Paul abruptly decided to take his shot. That would mean challenging the Kentucky establishment, including the powerful Mitch McConnell, the then-Senate minority leader who was backing state official Trey Grayson.

But Paul won the endorsement of Sarah Palin and rode the tea party wave to a runaway victory in the GOP primary, then the general election.

Even then, he was beginning to distance himself — a little — from the “libertarian” label, writing in USA Today that it “has become an emotionally charged, and often misunderstood, word in our current political climate.” But he went on: “The libertarian principles of limited government, self-reliance and respect for the Constitution are embedded within my constitutional conservatism. . . . Our Founding Fathers were clearly libertarians.”

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Like his father, Rand Paul can go into lecture mode, but he’s less likely to ramble. He’s not the smoothest politician ever to come down the pike — he would probably rather be riding his lawn mower back in Kentucky than glad-handing political contributors — but he’s built for the long haul. He’s a fitness buff, with a full head of curly, sandy-blond hair and a youthful face.

In August 2012, just up the road from where the Republican National Convention was about to convene in Tampa, Rand Paul introduced his father at a massive, raucous political rally on the campus of the University of South Florida. Ron Paul had been denied an opportunity to speak at the convention, but he was going to make his voice heard anyway. Though Rand was giving the stage over to Ron, everyone in that crowd understood that the father would soon be passing the revolution to the son.

In his introduction, Rand joked about the gropings of TSA airport screeners. If you mention the “Ron Paul Revolution,” he said, “you can get a free colonoscopy.”

He posed with arms raised, emulating the posture of someone waiting for the security scanner to take an image. The next time you do this, he said, you should ask yourself, “Is this the pose of a free man?”

His message, again and again, is that liberty is precious, and it is in peril. When he addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference this year, he declared, “We must rise as free men and free women and reclaim our birthright!”

Photo gallery

A look at the Kentucky Republican as he throws his hat into the presidential ring.

His most famous maneuver in the Senate may have been his marathon filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan as director of the CIA. Paul wanted the Obama administration to rule out using drones to kill American citizens on U.S. soil.

“I will speak today until the president responds and says: ‘No, we won’t kill Americans in cafes. No, we won’t kill you at home in your bed at night. No, we won’t drop bombs on restaurants,’ ” Paul said.

As he spoke, he started trending on Twitter: #StandwithRand. He kept talking — and talking, and talking, for nearly 13 hours, an unscripted downloading of his intellectual legacy.

He mentioned Hayek repeatedly — just the one name, as if everyone listening knew who “Hayek” was — and threw in references to Patrick Henry, James Madison, the German hyperinflation of 1923 and the election of Adolf Hitler.

“Alarm bells should go off,” he said, “when people tell you that the battlefield’s in America. Why? Because when the battlefield’s in America, we don’t have due process. . . . Another way to put it is to call it martial law.”

This was Paul channeling the apocalyptic edge of libertarian thinking: The government doesn’t just want the power to tax you. It wants the power to kill you.

His book “Government Bullies” is a compendium of horror stories of the government abusing and imprisoning people for seemingly trivial infractions against government regulations — such as a person who moves some dirt on his land and gets thrown in prison for violating laws protecting wetlands. (Back in his home town of Lake Jackson, one of the biggest environmental controversies in recent years involved a proposed golf course in a wetlands area. Golf won.)

This is a philosophy that abounds in slippery slopes, at the bottom of which is some kind of totalitarian dystopia. Paul, like his father, draws support from those who think the dystopia is already here.

Paul and his wife, Kelley, at his campaign kickoff event this week. Kelley was the one who decided that “Randy” should have the more grown-up name of “Rand.” (Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images)

At the formal launch of his campaign, in Louisville, Paul didn’t throw the word “libertarian” around much, but he said the word “liberty” 11 times.

It was a strikingly decorous, clean-cut event in which no one was allowed to wave a sign that was off message. You needed a ticket to get in. No one wore a tri-corner hat or looked as though he’d just rode in with the Hells Angels to demand the legalization of heroin. No one wore an “End the Fed” T-shirt, as they did at his father’s rallies.

Ron Paul’s demand to “End the Fed” has become Rand Paul’s milder demand to “Audit the Fed.”

That shift toward pragmatism has alienated some hard-core libertarians, who accuse Rand Paul of selling out.

“He won’t get the purists,” says Steve Munisteri, a former Texas GOP chairman who has known Rand since college.

The senator can afford to lose the true believers if he wins over new constituencies. He has reached across the aisle on social issues that appeal to libertarians and liberal Democrats, such as ending harsh sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. He went to Ferguson, Mo., and objected to the militarization of police

He’s aiming at younger voters, courting them on Twitter and Snapchat. He recently went to Austin for the South by Southwest Interactive Festival — techie heaven — and described building a new coalition, with people who don’t fit into the Republican or Democratic label and who are looking for “somebody who took a little bit from each.”

“Rand was never a 100 percent absolutist,” says Jesse Benton, a Kentucky political consultant who has worked for both Pauls. “Ron believed that if you gave up one ounce of principle, then you compromised the whole thing.” Rand, he said, “is okay with pragmatic gradualism.”

In his announcement speech, Rand Paul acknowledged his mother and father jointly and asked them to stand up. He said they helped him go to medical school and become a doctor. He didn’t make any reference to his father’s campaigns, or being the heir to a revolution.

Rand Paul's parents, Ron and Carol, at their son's rally Tuesday. In his announcement speech, Rand Paul acknowledged his mother and father jointly and asked them to stand up. He didn’t make any reference to his father’s campaigns, or being the heir to his libertarian legacy. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

In Louisville and then again here in New Hampshire, he delivered a stump speech that was relatively light on red-meat rhetoric, at least by Republican-primary standards. He didn’t mention Hillary Rodham Clinton and took relatively tame shots at President Obama. His favored targets tend to be abstractions: career politicians, special interests, the Washington “machine.”

The senator is not particularly emotive or charismatic on the stump, and without a big personality or rhetorical virtuosity he will rely on the power of his ideas to fill up a room — just like his father. Among his most animated moments in Milford on Wednesday came when he described foreign aid going to countries where “mobs” burn American flags. Waving a finger dramatically, he said, “I say not one more penny to these haters of America!” Huge roar from the crowd.

But even when he raises his voice to make a thunderous point, he sounds a bit like someone imitating an orator and turning up the volume because that’s what he’s supposed to do. He doesn’t really lean into it. He’s a calm person. Self-contained. Cerebral. He can be prickly in interviews. But his friends and family describe him as a man without airs.

“He’s not a self-promoter,” said Lucian Newman, an old friend from surgical residency in Atlanta. “He’s never been a self-promoter.”

But he’s running for president as a man of ideas. To hear him talk this week, you would indeed describe those ideas as libertarianish.

So here’s the Rand Paul battle plan: Keep the “lovers of liberty” fired up. Gather new, disengaged or disenfranchised supporters. And ease the whole operation toward the political mainstream — while counting on the mainstream to drift inexorably his way.

Rand Paul campaigning Wednesday in Milford, N.H. (Jim Cole/AP)