The Truthiness of Rand Paul

The junior senator from Kentucky could transform the GOP — if the facts don’t get in his way.

National Journal
Jill Lawrence
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Jill Lawrence
Oct. 17, 2013, 5 p.m.

THE PROMISE

This son of former Rep. Ron Paul has in­her­ited, or at least ap­pro­pri­ated, his fath­er’s abil­ity to se­duce un­con­ven­tion­al and ali­en­ated voters. Part of that is due to his policy po­s­i­tions, which are at­tract­ive be­cause they sound easy to ac­com­plish. (“De­troit has 50,000 fer­al dogs, thou­sands of aban­doned houses, and I can guar­an-damn-tee you, people in De­troit don’t want to send any more money to Egypt.”) Part of it is his style, which is cas­u­al and in the mo­ment. (“So when I was in col­lege “¦ I nev­er drank any beer or smoked any pot. Oh, ac­tu­ally, no, no, that’s Mike Lee’s story! I’m steal­ing Mike Lee’s story!”)

The over­all per­form­ance is en­ter­tain­ing and highly re­lat­able, and there are some policy un­der­pin­nings to go with it. Paul wins with col­lege kids by sup­port­ing states’ right to leg­al­ize marijuana and gay mar­riage. He wins with black voters by op­pos­ing man­dat­ory drug sen­tences and pro­mot­ing charter schools. And he wins with wo­men by ig­nor­ing Pentagon brass to sup­port bet­ter pro­tec­tions for rape vic­tims in the mil­it­ary.

LOUIS­VILLE, Ky. — Rand Paul was talk­ing with Uni­versity of Louis­ville med­ic­al stu­dents when one of them tossed him a soft­ball. “The ma­jor­ity of med stu­dents here today have a com­pre­hens­ive ex­am to­mor­row. I’m just won­der­ing if you have any last-minute ad­vice.” (Steve Brod­ner)

“Ac­tu­ally, I do,” said the oph­thal­mo­lo­gist-turned-sen­at­or, who stays sharp (and keeps his li­cense) by do­ing pro bono eye sur­ger­ies dur­ing con­gres­sion­al breaks. “I nev­er, ever cheated. I don’t con­done cheat­ing. But I would some­times spread mis­in­form­a­tion. This is a great tac­tic. Mis­in­form­a­tion can be very im­port­ant.”

He went on to de­scribe study­ing for a patho­logy test with friends in the lib­rary. “We spread the ru­mor that we knew what was on the test and it was def­in­itely go­ing to be all about the liv­er,” he said. “We tried to trick all of our com­pet­ing stu­dents in­to over-study­ing for the liv­er” and not study­ing much else.

“So, that’s my ad­vice,” he con­cluded. “Mis­in­form­a­tion works.”

Paul’s little riff had the stu­dents laugh­ing hard. And it was amus­ing — but also amaz­ing. Why would he set him­self up with an an­ec­dote like that? He knew re­port­ers were in the lec­ture hall. He’s also well aware that watch- dogs are com­pil­ing a grow­ing file of evid­ence that he plays loose with the facts. He had offered a few ex­amples to the stu­dents that very af­ter­noon.

“Un­der Obama­care and the cur­rent evol­u­tion of things, we have 18,000 dia­gnost­ic codes. We’re go­ing to 144,000 dia­gnost­ic codes,” Paul told them. It wasn’t the first time he had im­plied that the num­ber of codes — com­plete with seem­ingly ab­surd cat­egor­ies for in­jur­ies from macaws, lamp­posts, and burn­ing wa­ter skis — was ex­plod­ing as a res­ult of the Af­ford­able Care Act. But fact-check­ers across the spec­trum, from the con­ser­vat­ive web­site The Blaze to USA Today to the lib­er­al site Think Pro­gress, had thor­oughly de­bunked that no­tion months earli­er. As Paul must know, the new dia­gnost­ic codes were ap­proved by the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion and have noth­ing to do with Obama­care.

The stu­dents laughed about the macaws and again when Paul said someone mak­ing $30,000 a year would not be able to af­ford in­sur­ance un­der the new law “if it’s go­ing to cov­er preg­nancy to sex change to lap dan­cer.” The ad­min­is­tra­tion has said plainly that policies do not have to cov­er sex-change sur­gery. As for lap dan­cing, well, that ap­par­ently was Paul’s ima­gin­a­tion go­ing some­where un­usu­al.

Those few minutes on stage en­cap­su­lated the prom­ise and the per­il of a brash and polit­ic­ally tal­en­ted party crash­er already deep in­to pre­par­a­tions for a 2016 pres­id­en­tial race. Paul’s po­s­i­tions — a com­bin­a­tion of con­ser­vat­ive, liber­tari­an, and idio­syn­crat­ic — have the po­ten­tial to ex­cite and en­large the Re­pub­lic­an Party. His in­form­al, en­ga­ging per­son­al­ity could at­tract the young voters Re­pub­lic­ans need to sur­vive. In­deed, he could grow in­to a Re­aganesque game changer for his party — if he does not end up a vic­tim of his own af­fin­ity for mis­in­form­a­tion.

THE PROM­ISE

But it’s on for­eign policy and na­tion­al se­cur­ity that Paul could trans­form the GOP. His battles to curb mil­it­ary for­ays and for­eign aid, and his drive to re­strict U.S. sur­veil­lance, reach a broad, di­verse cross-sec­tion of angry, wary, and wor­ried Amer­ic­ans. The Ken­tucky sen­at­or’s old-fash­ioned, 13-hour fili­buster — for­cing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to say it wouldn’t use drones to kill U.S. cit­izens on U.S. soil — ce­men­ted his po­s­i­tion in the na­tion­al polit­ic­al-celebrity spot­light. Start­ing that night with his #Stand­With­Rand hasht­ag on Twit­ter, he rode a wave of pub­lic an­ger all the way to his high-pro­file op­pos­i­tion to in­volve­ment in Syr­ia, de­clar­ing there was “no clear na­tion­al se­cur­ity con­nec­tion” to the United States.

Per­haps most im­port­ant for Re­pub­lic­ans judging Paul’s 2016 vi­ab­il­ity and his po­ten­tial to turn en­thu­si­ast­ic fans at ral­lies in­to GOP votes at the polls is this: At a time when Amer­ic­ans des­pise the no­tion of more for­eign en­tan­gle­ments, he has some­how made Pres­id­ent Obama and his Demo­crats look like in­ter­ven­tion­ist hawks. “The thing that could trans­form our coun­try and trans­form the youth vote and trans­form a lot of votes would be if, all of a sud­den, the Demo­crats be­come the party of war. I think they really es­sen­tially are now,” Paul said in an in­ter­view. Young people “fight all the wars,” he said, and might look to the GOP “if there were a Re­pub­lic­an Party that were more re­luct­ant to go to war.”

This is not to say Paul is a per­fect can­did­ate in the eyes of young, minor­ity, and fe­male Amer­ic­ans — far from it. He is firmly op­posed to abor­tion and has in­tro­duced a bill giv­ing fer­til­ized eggs the same rights as people. He backs drilling for oil in the Arc­tic Na­tion­al Wild­life Refuge. And he has an ex­ceed­ingly cramped view of what the gov­ern­ment should be do­ing. A pro­pos­al he re­leased this year to bal­ance the budget in five years would elim­in­ate the Com­merce, Edu­ca­tion, En­ergy, and Hous­ing and Urb­an De­vel­op­ment de­part­ments; turn Medi­caid and food stamps in­to block grants; add private op­tions to Medi­care and So­cial Se­cur­ity; and re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act.

That min­im­al­ist the­ory of gov­ern­ment would be a hard sell even to voters who tell poll­sters they think gov­ern­ment is do­ing too much. Asked if there’s any­thing the gov­ern­ment should man­date, for ex­ample, Paul said, “The gov­ern­ment should pre­vent vi­ol­ence.”¦ They should en­force con­tracts. They should pre­vent fraud. But I don’t think the gov­ern­ment ought to man­date be­ha­vi­or out­side of vi­ol­ence.”

What does that mean in prac­tice? Noth­ing that would ap­peal to lib­er­als or even mod­er­ates, as Paul is aware. He told the med­ic­al stu­dents, “There’s a philo­soph­ic de­bate which of­ten gets me in trouble,” then waded in­to it any­way, say­ing he doesn’t be­lieve health care is a right. “I think we as phys­i­cians have an ob­lig­a­tion, as Chris­ti­ans we have an ob­lig­a­tion, to our fel­low man. I really be­lieve that, and it’s a deeply held be­lief,” he said. “But I don’t think you have a right to my labor. You don’t have a right to any­body else’s labor. I mean, food’s pretty im­port­ant. Do you have a right to food, wa­ter? As hu­mans, yes, we have an ob­lig­a­tion to give people wa­ter, to give people food, to give people health care. But it’s not a right.”

It’s a clas­sic liber­tari­an view, de­livered by a short, un­as­sum­ing guy in kha­kis and scuffed boots. And, by all ap­pear­ances, it’s an hon­est re­flec­tion of what he be­lieves in and would pur­sue if he were in the White House. If he were com­mand­er in chief, sworn to pro­tect the na­tion, he said, he’d be will­ing to live by the re­stric­tions he wants to im­pose on oth­er pres­id­ents. “It’s everything that I stand for,” Paul said with a dis­arm­ing straight­for­ward­ness that is as much a part of his present­a­tion as his jokes.

It’s also as much a part of his al­lure (es­pe­cially to young people) as his po­s­i­tions. While Paul has made a point not to ali­en­ate the polit­ic­al es­tab­lish­ment — un­like col­leagues such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — his read­i­ness to push the lim­its, and to en­gage in sharp ex­changes with oth­er sen­at­ors and Re­pub­lic­ans, makes him ap­peal­ing to the seem­ingly grow­ing num­ber of people who would clas­si­fy them­selves as anti­es­tab­lish­ment. “He’s not the pin­stripe and pat­ri­ot­ic-pin type of can­did­ate,” says Steph­en Voss, a polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist at the Uni­versity of Ken­tucky. “He brings a fresh­ness to na­tion­al polit­ics in a host of ways. And he’s hit­ting at the right time. The Re­pub­lic­an Party is troubled. They’ve had a lot of fail­ures. He’s of­fer­ing a new vis­ion.”

THE PER­IL

TRUTH SER­UM

THE PERIL

But then, there are the half-truths, cherry-picked fact­oids, and out­right er­rors that Paul seems stead­fastly un­will­ing to re­lin­quish.

Take health care. Al­though he’s a doc­tor, Paul re­peatedly mis­rep­res­ents as­pects of the Af­ford­able Care Act. For ex­ample, all of those crazy-sound­ing new billing codes he im­plies are the spawn of Obama­care were in fact re­leased by the World Health Or­gan­iz­a­tion 20 years ago and, as The Blaze re­por­ted, ap­proved by the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion in 2008, sched­uled for 2011, delayed un­til 2013, and then delayed again un­til late 2014, so they’ll fi­nally take ef­fect the same year as most of the ACA.

In dis­cuss­ing the ex­penses the law will im­pose on con­sumers, Paul rarely men­tions the sub­sidies many people will re­ceive, and he some­times says a single per­son mak­ing $30,000 a year will have to pay $15,000 a year in premi­ums. The gov­ern­ment is go­ing to re­quire some­body to pay 50 per­cent of their in­come for health in­sur­ance? “It de­pends on cir­cum­stances,” Paul replies. “I can’t tell you where the cutoff is for single without kids. But I think there will be people who are single without kids who don’t get sub­sidies who will struggle to pay $15,000 for in­sur­ance.” Poli­ti­Fact labeled that as­ser­tion “es­pe­cially off the mark.” Cit­ing avail­able facts, Poli­ti­Fact said such a per­son would pay at most about $3,000 and could pay far less due to the law’s caps, sub­sidies, and bare-bones cov­er­age op­tions.

The Louis­ville med stu­dents were wor­ried and curi­ous about Obama­care, which could greatly af­fect their fu­ture. “I will con­tin­ue to fight to make it less bad, at the very least,” Paul told them. It soun­ded like he wanted to fix or im­prove the law. Later, away from those stu­dents, asked how he would im­prove the law, he told Na­tion­al Journ­al he would try to delay and de­fund as much of it as pos­sible in hopes of even­tu­ally get­ting rid of it en­tirely, be­cause “the whole thing is rot­ten.”

Paul’s lo­gic in jus­ti­fy­ing the GOP drive to kill Obama­care is dicey, too. He says that while the pres­id­ent won reelec­tion by “a small ma­jor­ity” in 2012, “a ma­jor­ity of the people be­lieve Re­pub­lic­ans should be in charge of the House” and there­fore don’t want something like the law that was passed solely by Demo­crats. Obama won last year by nearly 5 mil­lion votes. Some people might con­sider that a small ma­jor­ity. But while Re­pub­lic­ans won a ma­jor­ity of House dis­tricts, it’s not ac­cur­ate to say a “ma­jor­ity of the people” wanted a GOP House. Demo­crats won the House pop­u­lar vote by more than 1.7 mil­lion votes na­tion­wide, the Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion re­por­ted in Ju­ly.

On an­oth­er front, Paul routinely ex­ag­ger­ates the size of the an­nu­al fed­er­al de­fi­cit, peg­ging it at $1 tril­lion. In fact, the de­fi­cit for fisc­al 2013 fell to an es­tim­ated $642 bil­lion, head­ing to­ward $378 bil­lion in two years, ac­cord­ing to a Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice re­port in May. 

Paul’s mis­state­ments led to a testy ex­change with the loc­al press here be­fore the Ken­tucky Farm Bur­eau’s ham break­fast in Au­gust. “Is the de­fi­cit go­ing up or down?” a re­port­er de­man­ded to know, ap­par­ently test­ing wheth­er Paul would fudge or cor­rectly dif­fer­en­ti­ate between the an­nu­al de­fi­cit (fall­ing) and the cu­mu­lat­ive na­tion­al debt (rising). And the re­port­er al­most got him. “The def — the debt,” Paul cor­rec­ted him­self, “is still con­tinu­ing to ex­pand.” As for the de­fi­cit, “we used to be alarmed when it was where it is now,” he said. “So it’s hard to ar­gue that we’re in a good place.” Still, Paul has per­sisted with his mis­lead­ing talk­ing point. He men­tioned bor­row­ing “a tril­lion dol­lars a year” on NBC’s Meet the Press on Oct. 6 — six days after the fisc­al year ended and nearly six months after the CBO re­port.

When asked about the fod­der he has provided for fact-check­ers, Paul erup­ted with scorn. “The fact-check­ing is not fact-check­ing. These are people with a bi­as. It’s purely an opin­ion. The stuff is so ludicrous I don’t even read it,” he said, slap­ping the table as he spoke. He is par­tic­u­larly put out by Glenn Kessler of The Wash­ing­ton Post, who has giv­en him nu­mer­ous “Pinoc­chios” this year for, among oth­er things, tweet­ing that “neo­cons” want to keep send­ing aid to Egypt (sev­er­al prom­in­ent neo­cons want to cut it off); for mis­lead­ing state­ments about for­eign aid as a pro­por­tion of the fed­er­al budget; for ask­ing ques­tions about the Bo­ston bomber case that were based on mis­in­form­a­tion; and for cit­ing Dwight Eis­en­hower as an in­spir­a­tion for his own skep­ti­cism about in­ter­ven­tion and for­eign aid (“Rand has it totally back­wards,” Kessler wrote). Kessler cited his­tor­i­ans on Eis­en­hower’s views, but Paul doesn’t buy it. “I can’t quote Eis­en­hower be­cause they say I don’t em­brace everything about Eis­en­hower,” he said in­cred­u­lously. “I can’t say I like Eis­en­hower. Next thing will be: I can’t like Lin­coln. Can I like part of Lin­coln?”

Paul’s out­sized re­ac­tion to the scru­tiny raises an­oth­er is­sue that would be trouble­some for a pres­id­en­tial con­tender: When he is an­noyed, he acts an­noyed. He con­siders some epis­odes closed, for in­stance, and of­ten cuts off re­port­ers who raise them. Asked about an aide he was forced to let go be­cause of the aide’s his­tory of in­flam­mat­ory state­ments about race, Paul be­came ex­as­per­ated. “I’m sort of done with that,” he replied. “If you’ve got one more ques­tion “¦ “

Na­tion­al can­did­ates al­ways face re­peated ques­tions about sub­jects they’d rather avoid. Some of them get con­front­a­tion­al in re­sponse (think Newt Gin­grich when asked about his mar­riages). But the suc­cess­ful ones de­vel­op canned an­swers to roll out on cue without get­ting ex­er­cised. George W. Bush, for ex­ample, de­fused ques­tions about his past drug and al­co­hol use with this clas­sic line: “When I was young and ir­re­spons­ible, I was young and ir­re­spons­ible.”

TRUTH SERUM

Paul might con­sider pay­ing some heed to the fact-check­ers rather than dis­miss­ing them as ideo­lo­gic­al foes. For a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate, it can be dan­ger­ous and some­times fatal to re­peatedly mangle the facts or even to de­vel­op an im­age, jus­ti­fied or not, as un­truth­ful. Just ask Al (In­ven­ted the In­ter­net) Gore or Michele (Vac­cine Causes Re­tard­a­tion) Bach­mann.

At the same time, however, Paul is far from the only politi­cian with com­plaints about fact-check­ers, and the fair­ness of fact-check­ing a tweet or an opin­ion about pres­id­en­tial his­tory is cer­tainly de­bat­able. Nor is Paul alone in his flights from real­ity. Nobody would win elec­tions if the stand­ard was 100 per­cent ac­cur­acy. Just to cite a few ex­amples, since 2007 Poli­ti­Fact has rated 41 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee Mitt Rom­ney’s state­ments false, mostly false, or “pants on fire.” The group says 28 per­cent of Obama’s state­ments fall in­to those cat­egor­ies, as do 32 per­cent of Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden’s. Obama just last month set off fact-check­er alarms when he claimed that non-budget items had nev­er been at­tached to a debt-ceil­ing hike.

Many of Paul’s state­ments deemed dis­tor­ted or false are not uniquely his. You hear some of them from oth­er Re­pub­lic­an politi­cians, and they are art­icles of faith among many in the grass­roots. In one re­cent ex­ample, Paul was quick to jump on a head­line mak­ing news in con­ser­vat­ive me­dia out­lets, and spread it on Fox News. “Ap­par­ently the Am­ber Alert — you know search­ing for a kid­napped child — has been shut down, but the Let’s Move weight-loss pro­gram for the first lady’s open today. So I guess they do have pri­or­it­ies,” he told Sean Han­nity on Oct. 7. But the truth is, state and loc­al au­thor­it­ies are in charge of Am­ber Alert pro­grams, and they were con­tinu­ing to is­sue the alerts, in­clud­ing two in the three days be­fore Paul’s ap­pear­ance. Only an in­form­a­tion­al fed­er­al web­site was shut down.

An­oth­er ex­ample is Paul’s lead role in try­ing to end what he calls “spe­cial treat­ment” for fed­er­al em­ploy­ees who must switch to Obama­care and to re­quire more of them to make the switch. In fact, the spe­cial treat­ment is in for­cing them to give up the in­sur­ance they cur­rently re­ceive through their em­ploy­er, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment (no one else in the coun­try has to do that) and — part of Paul’s pro­pos­al — in dis­al­low­ing the feds to con­tin­ue mak­ing an em­ploy­er con­tri­bu­tion to premi­ums (the equi­val­ent of a huge pay cut, and not im­posed on any­one else with em­ploy­er-sponsored plans). This is a cause célèbre among con­ser­vat­ives and, along with oth­er po­s­i­tions and state­ments judged want­ing by fact-check­ers, could ac­tu­ally help Paul in the 2016 primar­ies.

But that’s not a sure thing, and a Demo­crat could cap­it­al­ize plenty on this ma­ter­i­al in a gen­er­al elec­tion. Which sug­gests Paul might well get fur­ther by telling the full truth to make many, per­haps all, of his lim­ited-gov­ern­ment, anti-en­tan­gle­ment, in­di­vidu­al-re­spons­ib­il­ity points. He has already demon­strated that his ideas and style can win against a well-heeled op­pon­ent with more tra­di­tion­ally Re­pub­lic­an views. Re­mem­ber, Paul was al­most a stealth can­did­ate in 2010, a tea-party up­start tak­ing on Ken­tucky Sec­ret­ary of State Trey Grayson in the GOP Sen­ate primary. Grayson was the choice of Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell and the Ken­tucky party es­tab­lish­ment. But the primary was a rout, sym­bol­ized by what happened in Grayson’s home of Boone County, where Paul piled up 67 per­cent of the vote.

“Rand Paul did a very good job of get­ting out unique Re­pub­lic­an primary voters that had nev­er voted in a Re­pub­lic­an primary be­fore,” says former Grayson strategist Marc Wilson, also of Boone County. “They were re­gistered Re­pub­lic­ans who were just kind of anti­es­tab­lish­ment. They were part of what would be con­sidered that hard-core tea-party, con­ser­vat­ive, liber­tari­an wing of the party, who really didn’t get in­volved in Re­pub­lic­an Party polit­ics un­til they got ex­cited about a can­did­ate they all be­lieved in.”

Grayson, now head of Har­vard’s In­sti­tute of Polit­ics and an ex­pert on the pit­falls of un­der­es­tim­at­ing Rand Paul, says he and his ad­visers knew Paul was no novice be­cause they had videos of him stump­ing for his fath­er in 2008. “We thought the videos were great be­cause he said stuff voters wouldn’t like,” Grayson says of Rand Paul. Plus, “we just felt like he wouldn’t be able to raise the money to be com­pet­it­ive.” Wrong and wrong.

If he does pause and re­cal­ib­rate his rhet­or­ic, the young­er Paul might be able to do what his dad could not: Trans­late en­ergy and en­thu­si­asm in­to votes that could win him the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion. Already he leads the the­or­et­ic­al 2016 field in some polls and sits in the top tier, along with Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er and New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie, in the latest pres­id­en­tial rat­ings from the Uni­versity of Vir­gin­ia’s Cen­ter for Polit­ics. The cen­ter has said a Paul pres­id­en­tial cam­paign chal­len­ging his party’s hawk­ish ap­proach to for­eign policy “could change the course of the GOP, just like Gold­wa­ter.”

“Let’s hope it’s dif­fer­ent than Gold­wa­ter’s re­set,” Paul said wryly, “in the sense that we want to re­set in a win­ning fash­ion.”

COR­REC­TION: Be­cause of an edit­ing er­ror, an earli­er ver­sion of this story misid­en­ti­fied Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er.

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