The United States is having a libertarian moment. And Rand Paul is getting ready to capture it by himself.
The Kentucky Republican delivered his own response to President Obama's State of the Union on Tuesday night via YouTube. But the rebuttal wasn't so much about what Obama said Tuesday as much as it was an opening salvo for a possible 2016 presidential campaign, the bulk of it coming as a directed argument against big government.
"Government doesn't create jobs very well," Paul said. "Government is inherently bad at picking winners and losers ... if government is to send money to certain people to create businesses, they will more often than not pick the wrong people, and no jobs will be created." He pointed specifically to the old big government bogeyman, Solyndra.
"It's not that government's inherently stupid, although it's a debatable point," Paul said. "It's that government doesn't get the same signals."
Paul's Tuesday speech wasn't sponsored by the GOP (that honor went to Cathy McMorris Rogers) or the tea party (that was Sen. Mike Lee's job). The personalized setup provided for a much more visually appealing delivery, complete with controlled lighting and a lectern. A year after giving the official tea-party response, Paul has struck out on his own.
The move makes sense. A Tuesday NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that twice as many Americans feel negatively about the Republican Party than feel positively. As a politician, why tie yourself to that standard when you can use your own, already-mobilized base to go it alone, at least before primary season really kicks up?
And there's plenty reason to think Paul is perfectly placed to capture a slice of the current American agita. Consider this: What's the greatest, most existential threat to the United States—big business, big labor, or big government? In December, a record 72 percent said big government in a Gallup Poll, blowing past business (21 percent) and labor (5 percent). The majorities hold despite politics, but 92 percent of self-identified Republicans cite big government as the biggest threat to the future of America.
Think of Rand Paul as the anti-Bill de Blasio. In his Tuesday speech, Paul slammed the "politics of envy" and suggested that if you "punish" the successful, their companies will flee overseas. He pushed a somewhat anti-welfare message, highlighting the story of the antigay, fringey Star Parker, who says she once used her welfare money on drugs before turning her life around. While New Yorkers are highly optimistic about de Blasio just a few weeks into his liberal mayoralty, Paul's taking the bet that what flies in New York won't fly in the country overall. Again, there's a political logic here: While 67 percent of Democrats say government should do "a lot" to reduce poverty, only 27 percent of Republicans agree.
By all accounts, Paul is gunning for the top spot. In his Tuesday night response, Paul made policy proposals of his own, including those for economic freedom aones that would be set up around the U.S. and have, among other things, a flat 5 percent income and business tax. "I believe in an America where people are free to make their own decisions," he said.
And earlier in the day, he took digs at the possible competition. At Tuesday's State of the Net conference in D.C., Paul bashed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a "big proponent of the surveillance state," and suggested that a libertarian-leaning Republican candidate in 2016 could "completely transform where people think they are and what party people think they have allegiance for."
It's an early 2016 campaign shot, and it's not off base, either. Government was mentioned as the most important problem in the U.S. across all party IDs in a recent Gallup Poll, cited by 18 percent of Democrats. A whopping 65 percent of Americans say they're dissatisfied with the U.S. system of government and its effectiveness. However, many of the people who are upset over current government effectiveness are also surely no fans of the filibustering Paul.
Paul's speech was broadcast online instead of aired on national television, and it's not the sort of thing that's going to change the senator's fate on its own. But this independently run, radically small-government message is just another stake Paul is laying on a seemingly inevitable path toward a presidential campaign. Combine this with his impressive on-the-ground infrastructure and organization, and he's quickly becoming a major force for 2016.