The Rand Paul moment
You wonāt find him on any Federal Election Commission disclosure forms, but Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is the biggest in-kind donor to the incipient Rand Paul for president campaign.
Whatever its merits, the National Security Agency meta-data program couldnāt be better fashioned to play into fears of the government. Is it vast? Yes. Was it secret? Check. Does it arguably run outside the normal checks and balances of government? Uh-huh. Does it raise profound questions about privacy? Roger.
This is the kind of issue Rand Paul was born and (literally) raised to raise holy hell over. And it isnāt just the NSA program lately. The leak about the program came on the heels of revelations that the IRS was singling out tea party groups for extra scrutiny and invasive questions, and on the heels of the AP and James Rosen investigations.
Add in the gun control fight from earlier this year and Paul is nearly 4-for-4 in fights sticking up, in his view, for the first four amendments of the Bill of Rights. The only thing that is missing is the third, because no has proposed the quartering of troops in our homes ā yet.
On Wednesday, a Paul aide told me that another aide in the office came to him with a printout of a news article and asked, āCan anything else break that plays into Randās core issues?ā It had just been revealed that, unbeknownst to anyone, the FBI had been using drones for surveillance. The sound you hear is TV producers falling over themselves to book the Kentucky senator who rocketed to conservative celebrity on the strength of his filibuster of the administrationās drone policy.
It is a Rand Paul moment in the Republican Party not just because the headlines almost every day seem to reinforce his core critique of leviathan as too big, too unaccountable, and too threatening, but because he is smart and imaginative enough to capitalize on those headlines.
Paul has that quality that canāt be learned or bought: Heās interesting. How many potential Republican presidential candidates have helped shepherd a new verb into the English language. The hoopla around Paulās filibuster gave us, āto drone,ā in the sense of ādonāt drone me, bro,ā as an attendee yelled when Paul took the stage at CPAC.
Other conservatives in the Senate like to brag that they joined Paulās filibuster, but it was Paul who came up with the idea and executed it, in an inspired bit of political theater.
He taps into an American tradition of dissent not usually invoked by Republicans. At the Time magazine gala this year honoring the 100 most influential people in the world (he was one), he raised a glass to Henry David Thoreau. In his inaugural Senate address, he contrasted his Kentucky hero, the irascible abolitionist Cassius Clay with the more conventional Kentucky political legend, the Great Compromiser, Henry Clay.
His cultural affect is different, too, a little more Utne Reader than National Review. At a packed event at the Reagan Library he explained, āIām a libertarian conservative who spends most of my free time outdoors. I bike and hike and kayak, and I compost.ā It might be the first positive reference to composting in the history of that fine institution.
Because he cares about ideas, Paulās team doesnāt have to worry about him holding his own in substantive discussions. An aide relates how, on his recent West Coast swing, he visited with a Silicon Valley bigwig and they got to talking intensely about fiscal and monetary policy. After about 20 minutes the executive interrupted to say, āCan I just say? I have never had a conversation like this with a politician in my life.ā
Not too long ago, Paulās foreign policy views would have been an insuperable obstacle to a serious presidential run. No more. The evolution in the partyās foreign policy can be captured in the story of the Pauls. In 2008, Ron Paulās noninterventionism made him a punching bag in the Republican primary debates. In 2012, it got a respectful hearing. In 2016, his sonās (less toxic) version of the same policy will probably be close to the mainstream in a party exhausted with the world for the time being.
At least for some stretch of 2015, Rand Paul could well be the Republican front-runner, tapping into grass-roots enthusiasm on the model of Howard Dean in 2003. And itās not inconceivable that he could go further than that famous representative of āthe Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,ā although the field will presumably be very crowded on the right.
Paul has a built-in online and grass-roots network of the sort it takes years to build. In fact, it did. His father built it, and now heās working to expand it in his extensive travels. Over those years, his father welcomed into his fold cranks and haters, and one of Rand Paulās quiet messages is that he has his fatherās core convictions, without the loathsome baggage.
Iām far from a Rand Paul-ite. I donāt think there was ever any threat of Americans being droned sitting at cafes, nor do I think drones are the scariest invention in the history of flight. Iām not where Paul is on foreign or national security policy, and I doubt his libertarianism has as much cross-over appeal in blue states as he hopes. (Blue state moderates like government, alas.)
But libertarianism is a significant strand on the right. It should be represented, and represented well. By and large, Rand Paul does that. Anyone underestimating him in 2016 does so at their peril.
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