Can libertarianism break into the major league?
May 25th 2013 |From The Economist print edition
WHEN pondering a run for national office, it must be bittersweet to hear fans gush that your strong suit is being less of a crank than your dad. But that is the view of many Republicans who admire Rand Paul, a senator from Kentucky and star of the shrink-the-government right. They call him a worthy heir to his father, Ron Paul—a cult figure among libertarians, longtime congressman and serial contender for the White House—but with the added gifts of knowing how to talk to ordinary voters, and when to shut up. The elder Mr Paul inspired devotion among a slice of the electorate, but was ultimately confined to the fringes by his radicalism and mad-uncle manner. The younger Mr Paul is different, boosters say: a more political animal altogether.
Visiting New Hampshire on May 20th, a mere 31 months before that state holds the first primary of the 2016 presidential race, the first-term senator provoked revealing responses. He was welcomed by over 500 Republicans at a fund-raising dinner, including more youngsters than regulars had seen at a party event in years. He was also greeted by local Republicans selling T-shirts calling him: “The palatable Paul”.
Some guests thought the shirts disrespectful. After all, Ron Paul won second place in the 2012 Republican primary in New Hampshire: a state full of flinty Yankees who detest both taxes and meddling in folks’ private lives. But more guests endorsed the sentiment. Ron Paul wanted to abolish the Federal Reserve, close America’s foreign military bases and let the states decide whether to legalise drugs. He even questioned aid for Israel. Small wonder he never won more than a small slice of the vote.
Rand Paul frets about the Fed printing money, but stops short of wanting it scrapped. He stands for foreign policy “realism”, meaning fewer wars but a continued American presence abroad. He opposes aid for countries that burn American flags. But in contrast to his father, he took a trip to Israel in January and made supportive noises. He has talked up his Christian faith. He has called for the scrapping of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, but would not legalise drugs. He says he is not a libertarian but a conservative guided by the constitution. He opposes abortion and gay marriage, and does not urge anyone to “run around with no clothes on and smoke pot”.
In short, he is trying to be more palatable to Republicans than his dad. That explains why so many sturdy New Hampshire conservatives came to see him in the flesh: a tradition in their state, where voters joke about refusing to back presidential candidates they have met only twice. The senator was out to charm, wearing blue jeans with his blazer and tie. He was derisive rather than ferocious about big government, choosing his targets widely. He attacked alleged bullying by tax inspectors but also the 140,000 federally-mandated codes for reporting medical incidents, including two separate ones for turtle-inflicted injuries, depending on whether the victims were “bitten” or “struck”.
Mr Paul, an eye doctor by profession, referred proudly to his most famous moment in politics: his 13-hour filibuster in March over Barack Obama’s use of drones in the war on terror, during which he talked and talked to block a CIA chief’s appointment, until officials clarified that the president does not claim a legal right to use drones to kill American citizens on American soil who are not engaged in combat. Mr Paul’s question was a triumph of populism over substance. Drone strikes at home may make Americans shiver, but have never happened: authorities are quite capable of grabbing (or killing) suspects on home soil without unmanned planes. Sadly Mr Paul sought no answers about the legality of drone strikes overseas—ie, the sort that do happen—perhaps because most Americans support them.
Sometimes the younger Paul’s populism involves silence. In New Hampshire he did not mention a position disliked by many Republicans: his conditional support for immigration reforms that would give millions a path to citizenship. Sometimes it involves letting his hinterland show. Recent speeches have seen him recite lines from a love poem by Pablo Neruda, verses from T.S. Eliot and lyrics by the 1980s Scottish pop duo, the Proclaimers.
Yet the younger Mr Paul is not just a more approachable version of his father. Ron Paul was a libertarian who wore a Republican rosette. His presidential runs were an exercise in pedagogy. His son has worldlier goals. After Ron Paul’s retirement, his son praised him for building a unique coalition around fiscal conservatism, personal privacy, liberty, limited government and a less bellicose foreign policy. That coalition, Rand Paul wrote, crossed lines of party, class and race and “could have competed” in a world not controlled by a two-party system.
Look closely, and Rand Paul is trying to build a coalition that can win even in a two-party world. In the South he has courted evangelicals and gun-rights absolutists. In New Hampshire he warned against being “the party of white people”. He has wooed civil libertarians, the young and blacks, defending the due-process rights of terror suspects, attacking rigid drug laws and clarifying (after some confusion) that he thinks it proper for civil-rights laws to cover private businesses.
That makes Mr Paul hard to pin down. He is to the left of his party and on its hard right at the same time: he has written a draft federal budget so radical that just 18 senators voted for it. He can be quirky, using a Senate hearing with an environmental regulator to rant about low-flush lavatories. He can be a bully: asking the same regulator if she was pro-choice on abortion, despite opposing choice for consumers. Sometimes he bravely tells the truth; sometimes he panders shamelessly. He is definitely not his dad. But like his dad, it is hard to see him as president.