On Rand Paul and the Libertarian–Statist Divide
Why establishment Democrats and Republicans fear Rand Paul
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Why establishment Democrats and Republicans fear Rand Paul
When Rand Paul commandeered the senate floor last month to protest the government’s remote-controlled-death-machine program, he proved that distant political factions have more in common than we’re often led to believe. The antiwar left saw the filibuster as a challenge to the violence and the innocent dead left in the drone program’s wake. The antigovernment right rallied around Paul’s pointed question about whether a hypothetical Hellfire missile might just leave a crater where your neighborhood Starbucks once stood. Rush Limbaugh called him the future. Code Pink activists brought him boxes of chocolates. #StandWithRand was, for a moment, the most popular Twitter topic on the planet.
In this one act of political theater, Paul also accomplished what his father had been unable to do during thirty-seven years in politics: he brought an American Civil Liberties Union position into the Republican Party mainstream. But the stirring tale of Rand Paul, tousle-haired libertarian prince, didn’t last long. Even as Twitter carried on about his #PaulNighter, the adults in Washington came to the bipartisan consensus that the junior senator from Kentucky was out of his depth.
Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham took the greatest umbrage and said, respectively, that Paul was a “wacko bird” and had the party “spun up” about nothing. Graham congratulated Obama on escalating the quasi-covert program that has now killed upward of 900 civilians in Pakistan and Yemen, including scores of children, while also noting that the process of putting people on the kill list is “sometimes too rigorous.” The Wall Street Journal cautioned Paul against pulling any more “stunts that fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms.”
The only faction more indignant than the establishment right was the establishment left. On The McLaughlin Group, Eleanor Clift described Paul’s filibuster as “a paranoiac rant.” MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell called him “a crazy man,” “vile,” and, medically speaking, “a psychopath.” Lest the point be lost in nuance, O’Donnell summarized: “Rand Paul is not a flawed messenger on this subject; he is a ridiculous, sick, paranoid messenger.” Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times that Paul is “loopy,” an “albatross,” a “curse,” and a “skunk” who is serving the American people “a crazy salad.”
What sort of strange creature is this? How did a psychopathic skunk-bird and his crazy salad make so many powerful people feel threatened? The answer is plain: Rand Paul is his father’s son, and regardless of the massive recent shift in public opinion about drones, Washington has not warmed to the Paul family’s fight against federal power. Rand may be the smoother messenger and the more willing to compromise of the two, but as Ron Paul’s biographer Brian Doherty told me, Rand “is living up to his father’s legacy in ways that are so significant . . . it’s surprising how much the Republican Party is rallying behind him.”
Rand is now the unquestioned leader of the nascent political movement that his father is still building, even after his January retirement from Congress. The self-described “Liberty Movement,” whose quasi-religious fervor I wrote about in the April issue of Harper’s, is powered by the same young apostles who have been carrying Ron Paul’s antigovernment, anticorporate, antiwar message since 2008. Paul may not have won a single state primary in his two recent presidential campaigns, but he did something that no Perry or Santorum could achieve: he laid an organizational groundwork with the potential to change the G.O.P. from the inside. He held a steady 10 percent of the vote during the 2012 primaries, and he raised more money than any candidate other than Mitt Romney. (He also took in more than seven times Romney’s total from members of the active military.)
Libertarian conservatives remain an insurgent minority in the party, but their momentum can no longer be questioned: Paulite Republicans control the state party chairmanships in the early-voting states of Iowa and Nevada. They are dominant in Maine, and are threatening establishment conservatives in Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Virginia, and beyond. These gains have not been without considerable turmoil (and in some state conventions last summer, outright chaos), and they will test the party’s core beliefs. But at a time of conservative reassessment, the “Ron Paul people” are equally an opportunity to widen the party’s appeal — and Rand, Doherty says, “is explicitly and implicitly trying to reach out beyond the Republican Party base.”
Following the success of the drone filibuster, Rand gave an interview on Fox News Sunday that would have been unthinkable just a month prior. A “more libertarian Republican approach to things,” he said, could attract young voters and make the party competitive on the West Coast and New England. “Our party could grow if we accepted something a little different than the cookie-cutter conservative that we’ve put out in the past.” It’s an open play for fiscal conservatives who don’t mind gay marriage, but have soured on endless military adventurism.
The Obama Administration, too, has left a few doors open for Paul. For every drone-supporting Democrat who rests her conscience on Obama’s wise judgment, there are others who ask how President Palin would wield the same authority. Years of stagnant economic growth are applying additional pressure on today’s progressive coalition. “Reality,” says Doherty, “is making the libertarian case for the libertarians.” The successive crises of the past twelve years — 9/11 and its attendant wars, the surveillance state, a failed drug war, and the financial crisis — are eroding the structural narratives of American politics. The left-versus-right paradigm won’t fade overnight, but it is being joined by a new struggle that, on a variety of issues, pits populists who have grown skeptical of government’s ability to solve big problems against confident corporate and state planners. If Rand Paul and the Liberty Movement continue to challenge the Republican establishment on drones, drugs, and defense spending, and if the Democrats blithely carry on as champions of the status quo, this reshuffling can only gather speed. It may be starting on the local and state level, and it may not yet be finding expression in these terms, but the fight between the libertarians and the statists has begun, and it’s coming to an election near you.
More from Michael Ames:
i. stand with israel
I listen to a lot of conservative talk radio. Confident masculine voices telling me the enemy is everywhere and victory is near — I often find it affirming: there’s a reason I don’t think that way. Last spring, many right-wing commentators made much of a Bloomberg poll that asked Americans, “Are you more sympathetic to Netanyahu or Obama?” Republicans picked the Israeli prime minister over their own president, 67 to 16 percent. There was a lot of affected shock that things had come to this. Rush Limbaugh said of Netanyahu that he wished “we had this kind of forceful moral, ethical clarity leading our own country”; Mark Levin described him as “the leader of the free world.” For a few days there I yelled quite a bit in my car.
The one conservative radio show I do find myself enjoying is hosted by Dennis Prager. At the Thanksgiving dinner of American radio personalities (Limbaugh is your jittery brother-in-law, Michael Savage is your racist uncle, Hugh Hewitt is Hugh Hewitt) Dennis Prager is the turkey-carving patriarch trying to keep the conversation moderately high-minded. While Prager obviously doesn’t like liberals — “The gaps between the left and right on almost every issue that matters are in fact unbridgeable,” he has said — he often invites them onto his show for debate, which is rare among right-wing hosts. Yet his gently exasperated take on the Obama–Netanyahu matchup was among the least charitable: “Those who do not confront evil resent those who do.”
Pairs of moose-dung earrings sold each year at Grizzly’s Gifts in Anchorage, Alaska:
An Alaskan brown bear was reported to have scratched its face with barnacled rocks, making it the first bear seen using tools since 1972, when a Svalbardian polar bear is alleged to have clubbed a seal in the head with a block of ice.
A former prison in Philadelphia that has served as a horror-movie set was being prepared as a detention center for protesters arrested at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump fired his campaign manager.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”