This Is Rand Paul’s Moment

The Kentucky Republican struck out on his own in his response to the State of the Union. Here’s why.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks to members of the media on January 9, 2014 at the White House in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Matt Berman
Jan. 29, 2014, midnight

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.