Rand Paul’s Evasion Strategy Isn’t Working

The senator’s past policies keep coming back to haunt him.

MANCHESTER, NH - APRIL 12: U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks at the Freedom Summit at The Executive Court Banquet Facility April 12, 2014 in Manchester, New Hampshire. The Freedom Summit held its inaugural event where national conservative leaders bring together grassroots activists on the eve of tax day.
National Journal
Emma Roller
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Emma Roller
Aug. 5, 2014, 8:41 a.m.

Per­haps more than any Re­pub­lic­an in his co­hort, Sen. Rand Paul is known for stick­ing to his be­liefs, no mat­ter how con­tro­ver­sial they may be.

But lately, re­port­ers and ci­vil­ians have been ask­ing Paul un­com­fort­able ques­tions about his past po­s­i­tions. In re­sponse, Paul isn’t claim­ing that he’s had an hon­est change of heart or “evolved” — he’s say­ing he nev­er held a dif­fer­ent po­s­i­tion in the first place. Or he’s just not say­ing any­thing at all.

In­stead of tak­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s “evolving” ap­proach, Paul has vehe­mently in­sisted that he has not, in fact, changed his mind on is­sues; the me­dia is just warp­ing his re­cord.

Still, the in­tern­al lo­gic of Paul’s polit­ics has be­come dif­fi­cult to keep track of. In the past week, Paul has been con­fron­ted with three im­port­ant is­sues — Is­rael, the Civil Rights Act, and im­mig­ra­tion — and fumbled.

Im­mig­ra­tion re­form

On im­mig­ra­tion, Paul in­sists he does not sup­port am­nesty. His defin­i­tion of “im­mig­ra­tion re­form” means beef­ing up bor­der se­cur­ity, ex­pan­ded work visas for tech work­ers, and mak­ing Eng­lish “the of­fi­cial lan­guage of all doc­u­ments and con­tracts.”

Paul also hasn’t signed onto a Re­pub­lic­an pro­pos­al to give leg­al status to Dream­ers who en­list in the mil­it­ary. “This is a com­plic­ated part of im­mig­ra­tion re­form. Do I have sym­pathy if you served in our mil­it­ary and we ought to find a place for you in our coun­try? Ab­so­lutely,” he said on a con­fer­ence call in June. “But do I want to send a sig­nal to every­body in Mex­ico that if you come and join our mil­it­ary, you get to be a cit­izen? That’s a bad sig­nal.”

Paul is send­ing mixed sig­nals, too. The Part­ner­ship for a New Amer­ic­an Eco­nomy, a pro-im­mig­ra­tion group run by Grover Nor­quist and former New York City May­or Mi­chael Bloomberg, has touted Paul as a sup­port­er — though the word “re­form” means very dif­fer­ent things for them. Nor­quist’s group wants tightened bor­der se­cur­ity, but also sup­ports a path to cit­izen­ship for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants cur­rently liv­ing in the U.S., oth­er­wise known as Dream­ers.

This week, Paul is on a 10-stop swing through Iowa. At a fun­draiser for im­mig­ra­tion hard­liner Rep. Steve King on Monday, Paul ap­peared to lit­er­ally flee the scene when a Dream­er con­fron­ted King.

As Shane Gold­mach­er writes:

The awk­ward scene was a visu­al re­mind­er of the polit­ic­al tightrope Paul is try­ing to walk as he woos the tea-party base of the GOP, rais­ing money for a con­ser­vat­ive firebrand like King, at the same time as he pitches an in­clu­sion­ary mes­sage of a Re­pub­lic­an Party that he says must ex­pand its ap­peal to win fu­ture na­tion­al elec­tions.

That tightrope is be­com­ing shaki­er every day, as more and more scru­tiny is on Paul ahead of 2016.

Aid to Is­rael

In 2011, Paul pro­posed end­ing fed­er­al aid to Is­rael as part of a slash-and-burn fed­er­al budget. But on Monday, speak­ing with a Ya­hoo News re­port­er, Paul denied ever of­fer­ing such a pro­pos­al.

“I haven’t really pro­posed that in the past,” Paul told Ya­hoo’s Chris Moody. “We’ve nev­er had a le­gis­lat­ive pro­pos­al to do that. You can mis­take my po­s­i­tion, but then I’ll an­swer the ques­tion. That has not been a po­s­i­tion — a le­gis­lat­ive po­s­i­tion — we have in­tro­duced to phase out or get rid of Is­rael’s aid. That’s the an­swer to that ques­tion. Is­rael has al­ways been a strong ally of ours and I ap­pre­ci­ate that. I voted just this week to give money — more money — to the Iron Dome, so don’t mis­char­ac­ter­ize my po­s­i­tion on Is­rael.”

But if you’re go­ing to ac­cuse a re­port­er of “mis­tak­ing” your po­s­i­tions, you’d bet­ter be pre­pared to back that up. Com­pare what he said Monday to what the newly elec­ted Paul said about Is­rael in 2011: “I think they’re an im­port­ant ally, but I also think that their per cap­ita in­come is great­er than prob­ably three-fourths of the rest of the world,” he told ABC then. “Should we be giv­ing free money or wel­fare to a wealthy na­tion? I don’t think so.”

Dave Wei­gel also has a good run­down of all the times Paul has called for cut­ting aid to Is­rael. By try­ing to men­tally erase his past po­s­i­tions, Paul is only hurt­ing him­self and po­ten­tially ali­en­at­ing the same re­port­ers he should be try­ing to woo.

Civil Rights Act

Paul, more than any oth­er Re­pub­lic­an con­sid­er­ing a 2016 bid, has worked to reach out to black voters. He’s work­ing with Sen. Cory Book­er across the aisle to help ex-felons find jobs, he’s pro­posed sen­ten­cing re­form, and he’s spoken to pre­dom­in­antly black audi­ences at Howard Uni­versity and the Na­tion­al Urb­an League.

But he’s also been haunted by his re­cord on the Civil Rights Act. In 2010, Paul took is­sue with the sec­tion of the act that pro­hib­ited private-busi­ness own­ers from dis­crim­in­at­ing on the basis of race. “I think it’s a bad busi­ness de­cision to ex­clude any­body from your res­taur­ant,” Paul said at the time. “But, at the same time, I do be­lieve in private own­er­ship.”

Paul re­versed his stance soon after he star­ted get­ting flak for the state­ment. On MS­N­BC last week, Paul in­sisted he had “nev­er been op­posed” to the Civil Rights Act. In­stead of cla­ri­fy­ing his stance and ad­mit­ting that his free-mar­ket val­ues at one time trumped sup­port for civil-rights policy, he took the MS­N­BC host to task for the net­work’s per­ceived bi­as.

“I’ve been at­tacked by half a dozen people on your net­work try­ing to say I’m op­posed to the Civil Rights Act and some­how now I’ve changed,” Paul said. “I’m not will­ing to en­gage with people who are mis­rep­res­ent­ing my view­point on this.”

But he did change! Gran­ted, he changed back in 2010, but tak­ing such con­sterna­tion at this only makes more trouble for him­self. In an at­tempt to prove the true­ness of his mor­al com­pass, Paul only in­spires more ques­tions. If he were to say, “Yes, I’ve evolved — what of it?” the so-called “par­tis­an cranks and hacks” in the me­dia would have little reas­on to rep­rim­and him. But Paul isn’t one to back down from a good ar­gu­ment about se­mantics.

Hav­ing a change of heart (or polit­ic­al cal­cu­lus) doesn’t have to be bad. True, Amer­ic­an voters like their can­did­ates to be as pure as the driv­en snow. “Flip-flop­ping” has be­come a derog­at­ory term no mat­ter how noble a can­did­ate’s reas­on for chan­ging his or her mind may have been. But mis­lead­ing voters about your past re­cord could hurt even more.

As it stands, on­look­ers, like Queen Ger­trude, may find the sen­at­or doth protest too much.

Up­date, 2:30 p.m.: A spokes­per­son for Paul re­spon­ded with this com­ment about Is­rael, say­ing Paul has nev­er “tar­geted Is­rael’s aid.” That is true — Paul’s 2011 budget pro­pos­al would have cut fed­er­al aid to coun­tries across the board, not just to Is­rael.

“Sen­at­or Rand Paul has nev­er pro­posed any le­gis­la­tion that tar­geted Is­rael’s aid and just last week voted to con­tin­ue and in­crease fund­ing to the State of Is­rael. Sen. Paul is a strong sup­port­er of the Jew­ish state of Is­rael,” the spokes­per­son said in an email to Na­tion­al Journ­al. “Sen. Paul’s po­s­i­tion was ex­actly what Prime Min­is­ter Net­an­yahu said to Con­gress on Ju­ly 10, 1996 and May 24, 2011 — Is­rael will be bet­ter off when it does not have to count on any­one else for its pro­tec­tion.”

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