Rand Paul’s Risky Politics

His stances have the potential to alienate large swaths of Republicans.

June 1, 2015, 4 p.m.

Polit­ics is al­ways a risky busi­ness, with the odds of suc­cess the steep­est for any­one run­ning for pres­id­ent. So many factors have to line up just right to cap­ture a nom­in­a­tion, and even then, the chances of win­ning the gen­er­al elec­tion are roughly 50-50. But Sen. Rand Paul’s ap­proach to run­ning takes risk-tak­ing to an en­tirely dif­fer­ent and high­er level.

Like his fath­er, former Rep. Ron Paul, Rand Paul gets high marks for ideo­lo­gic­al ori­gin­al­ity. Most mem­bers of Con­gress and pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates simply em­brace either a lib­er­al or a con­ser­vat­ive agenda (in the past, a cen­ter-left or cen­ter-right ap­proach worked), rarely stray­ing far from that stand­ard dogma. Simply know­ing most law­makers’ po­s­i­tions on one or two is­sues can let you pretty much pre­dict where they are on many more. But with the Paul fath­er and son, it is like each star­ted off with a blank leg­al pad and con­struc­ted a cus­tom ideo­logy, in­cor­por­at­ing liber­tari­an­ism, pop­u­lism, and a dis­tinctly non-in­ter­na­tion­al­ist and non­in­ter­ven­tion­ist ap­proach to for­eign policy.

While I do not think that Rand Paul’s ideo­logy is poll-driv­en in any way and I be­lieve that he comes by his views quite hon­estly, each of its ele­ments make some polit­ic­al sense with cer­tain voter groups. Giv­en that, in 2012, GOP nom­in­ee Mitt Rom­ney lost voters un­der 30 years of age by a whop­ping 23 points (Rom­ney’s best group was those 65 years of age and older), Paul’s liber­tari­an tend­ency has the po­ten­tial to draw sup­port from young­er voters at a high­er rate than Re­pub­lic­ans in the past, par­tic­u­larly if Demo­crats nom­in­ate someone who would turn 70 in her first year as pres­id­ent.

Paul’s pop­u­list rhet­or­ic is cer­tainly in tune with a grow­ing anti-es­tab­lish­ment trend that we are see­ing in both the Demo­crat­ic Party (think Oc­cupy Wall Street) and in the GOP (think tea party). While the health care re­form fight of 2009 and 2010 cer­tainly ac­cel­er­ated the de­vel­op­ment of the tea-party move­ment, its ori­gins can be traced more to out­rage over the Troubled As­set Re­lief Pro­gram (TARP), which many con­ser­vat­ives saw as too much gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion in­to the private sec­tor.

Paul’s ap­proach to for­eign policy and na­tion­al se­cur­ity is­sues is sim­il­arly un­ortho­dox in a party that, at least in mod­ern times, has taken a mus­cu­lar and hawk­ish ap­proach. His stance could ap­peal to some who grew ex­ceed­ingly weary dur­ing 11 years of con­tinu­ous war in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan. Paul is quick to deny that he is an isol­a­tion­ist, so we’ll just de­scribe him as a non-in­ter­na­tion­al­ist and non­in­ter­ven­tion­ist.

All three of these tend­en­cies have con­stitu­en­cies in our polit­ics, both in­side and out­side the Re­pub­lic­an Party. But each one has the po­ten­tial to ali­en­ate a large num­ber of Re­pub­lic­an voters and/or donors as well.

The liber­tari­an ap­proach is deeply of­fens­ive to many of the so­cial, cul­tur­al, and re­li­gious con­ser­vat­ives who play such a heavy role in the GOP nom­in­a­tion pro­cess. “Live and let live” is not how they think. Paul’s non­in­ter­ven­tion­ist stands drive away the neo­con­ser­vat­ives (think the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion) as well as the more tra­di­tion­al in­ter­na­tion­al­ist wing, per­son­i­fied by Pres­id­ents Nix­on and George H.W. Bush.

For that mat­ter, Paul doesn’t sound that much like Pres­id­ent Re­agan either. The strong and grow­ing pro-Is­rael con­stitu­ency in the GOP, in­creas­ingly identi­fy­ing with the con­ser­vat­ive Likud fac­tion of Is­raeli polit­ics, has a nat­ur­al an­ti­pathy to­ward Paul. One could al­most see Shel­don Ad­el­son hand­ing over the keys to the White House to Hil­lary Clin­ton if the al­tern­at­ive is Rand Paul. His pop­u­lism drives the es­tab­lish­ment, For­tune 500, and Wall Street wing of the GOP nuts as well.

Paul’s liber­tari­an rhet­or­ic risks ali­en­at­ing con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ists, while his for­eign policy stance and pop­u­lism may ali­en­ate large donors and po­ten­tial su­per PAC spon­sors as well.

But over the past few days, Paul’s fer­vent op­pos­i­tion to ex­ten­sion of cer­tain sur­veil­lance re­lated pro­vi­sions in the Pat­ri­ot Act amounts to a big­ger danger. Polls show clearly that for­eign policy and na­tion­al se­cur­ity con­cerns are at the top of the agenda for GOP voters, just as the eco­nomy, jobs and in­come/wealth dis­par­ity are at the top for Demo­crat­ic voters. But more im­port­antly, if there were some kind of ma­jor ter­ror­ist event in the United States, something that could po­ten­tially have been un­covered by NSA sur­veil­lance, ag­gress­ive wireta­ps, and meta-data col­lec­tion, then Rand Paul will have some very ser­i­ous ex­plain­ing to do. While con­ser­vat­ives have a very real dis­trust of gov­ern­ment, re­l­at­ively few over­lap much with the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on.

It should be noted, however, that while it is al­most in­ev­it­able that the United States will be the tar­get of a sig­ni­fic­ant ter­ror­ist at­tack in the fu­ture, the odds of one hap­pen­ing in the next 17 months, between now and the Novem­ber gen­er­al elec­tion, are some­what less. Many of the smartest minds in the in­tel­li­gence and na­tion­al se­cur­ity fields were con­vinced, just after the Sept. 11 at­tacks, that a ma­jor fol­low-up at­tack would be only a few months away. We ob­vi­ously have not had one. Every­one hopes or prays that we will not have an­oth­er. Rand Paul is bet­ting the ranch that there isn’t go­ing to be an­oth­er any­time soon.

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