The case for Rand Paul

2013-03-12 14:03
This video frame grab shows Senator Rand Paul speaking on the floor of the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Senate Television, AP)

This video frame grab shows Senator Rand Paul speaking on the floor of the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Senate Television, AP)

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Chicago - There was a fair portion of News24 readers, according to the comments section of some of the articles I put together, for the libertarian Ron Paul during the fight for the Republican presidential nomination in 2011 and early 2012. While Paul didn't do particularly well outside his own very dedicated base, he nonetheless made a few headlines before losing the nomination and retiring from Congress.
Ron Paul was popular because of his calls for minimised government presence to a significant degree (something enunciated by a plethora of US politicians who very rarely act upon it), and plans to abolish income tax. Ron Paul’s message about small government (in which constraining government spending is implicit) also resonated due to the current debate over whether the USA’s debt and deficit are actually doing any harm to the economy.
Although Ron Paul has retired from Congress, his son Rand looks to be aiming to follow in his father’s libertarian footsteps. However, while Ron campaigned as a true libertarian reformer, Rand has taken a more circumspect look at which libertarian views he is prepared to espouse.

The difference between them, largely, is that Ron served in the House of Representatives, which means he represents a small district in Texas near Houston, with a more common thread running through it than Rand. Rand Paul represents Kentucky as a senator, and therefore required statewide appeal to win his election in what is a largely establishment conservative state – look at Kentucky’s other senator for an example: Majority leader Mitch McConnell.
Rand has been more circumspect in which aspects of libertarianism he espouses, and it will more than likely give him a firmer platform on which to perch himself, with a speculative presidential run in 2016 still being floated.

Through the establishment lens

Ron Paul’s problems within his own party were that there are factions that dislike his isolationist foreign policy, his stance that states should decide their own policies when it comes to abortion, that the government shouldn’t have the right to tell you who you can or can’t marry or under which circumstances you can marry them. What those translate to, when put through an establishment lens, is not defending Israel enough, legalising abortion and gay marriage. And these are the kinds of points that turned people away from Paul senior.
Rand Paul is savvier than that, and is a self-described libertarian despite some leanings in which he is happy for the government to interfere, making himself far more palatable to the broader electorate. For example, he is virulently anti-abortion, including in cases of rape and incest (although he isn’t against contraception), and believes in federal law to indemnify this. A Republican who doesn’t have a firm stance against abortion can shelve his or her presidential ambitions, and often state-wide ones.
While he personally disagrees with same-sex marriage, he believes it is up to the states to decide. This essentially has the same political significance as President Obama’s stance (although Obama has since backed court cases against two laws restricting same-sex marriage rights) – meaning he can make a noise about it in public without falling too far foul of civil liberties advocates, which naturally find overlap with libertarians.
Where Paul does differ from his Republican peers is, unsurprisingly, his stance on civil liberties. If you know his name at the moment it is likely because he stood up and spoke for thirteen hours in the Senate last week in order to block President Obama’s nomination for the head of the CIA, John Brennan.

Paul used Brennan’s nomination for a fight about drones because Brennan is a proponent of this little piece of war, and a few weeks ago a government memo was uncovered by NBC that argued for the government’s right to kill Americans with the country’s drones. News24 covered it at the time.

Too much power

Paul’s platform on which he stood for his 13-hour marathon was the right to habeas corpus for all Americans on American soil. In a nutshell, habeas corpus is the right to be investigated and tried for a crime fairly and lawfully – that is, warrants to be passed by a judge, no government interference, detention for a limited time without proof and so on.

Obviously, a drone strike on an American citizen within America’s borders removes that right because, as things stand, the determination as to who gets killed by drones is made from the president’s office. The president should never wield that much power, according to Paul. Interestingly, he was joined in this crusade by a number of Republicans, and one Democrat: Ron Wyden of Oregon, who was the earliest senators to pickup this domestic drone case when he wrote to the president’s CIA chief nominee in January asking him to clarify under what circumstances Americans could be killed by their own government. He has been on the government’s case about this for years.  
Paul also fought to restrict the reach of the Patriot Act, although this was largely unsuccessful. The Patriot Act was a post-9/11 piece of legislation that greatly increased the power of the government to search through its citizens’ affairs under the guise of “national security”. He did the same when he tried to introduce the “Fourth Amendment Protection Act” to counter the effects of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act’s (FISA) reauthorisation.

FISA, under certain circumstances, removes the need for probable cause and judicial authorisation for a warrant and Paul’s amendment would have taken this intention to override privacy on. It failed. The USA’s perpetual war on drugs, which has seen thousands of first-time offenders locked up in jail for various lengths, has also come under the Paul microscope – as recently as November last year he said he wanted to soften the penalties for drug offences, and before that he obstructed votes in the Senate to ban certain chemical drug compounds.

Toeing the Israel line

Don’t think this sounds all that obvious. Senior (especially when it comes to the armed forces and foreign policy) Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham criticised Paul’s and his accomplices’ 13-hour stand the following day, with McCain saying it was “ridiculous” and a “political stunt”. Graham said Paul took “this debate into the absurd”.
Paul also differs from his more mainstream counterparts by threatening to withhold military aid payments to Egypt: That annual aid payment is the USA’s part in a treaty that mandates peace between Egypt and Israel. Withholding aid sounds good on the surface, in spite of the US so successfully using it to uphold a dictator like Hosni Mubarak for nigh on 30 years to assist Israel, but Paul (and his father, incidentally) supports a drawdown in the USA’s interventionist foreign policy, as well as its troops stationed all over the world.

The reason for this is obvious: Libertarians naturally believe in the right to self-determination and all of these military personnel and aid payments cost money. Less money spent on the military and foreign aid means less money required by government, which means lower taxes. Paul has also opposed US involvement wars in Libya, Syria and Iran. On Israel however, yet another highly contentious topic within the US, Paul has decided to toe the line and said as recently as January that an attack on Israel is an attack on the USA.

And it doesn’t stop there: Paul believes the government uses far too much taxpayer wonga and would cut a bucket of it out. (Incidentally, Ron Paul said, during his run for president in 2012, that he would cut $1-trillion from US spending in his first year in office - around 30% of the budget). At the beginning of 2011 Paul introduced a bill which would have cut $500bn from government spending in that fiscal year. This included around $80bn stripped from the military, $25bn from the Department of Homeland Security, over $20bn from the State Department, over $40bn from the Department of Transport including all subsidies for train companies, and the same amount stripped out of agriculture spending. The bill, incidentally, failed.

Divergent arguments

While it isn’t uncommon to hear Republicans decrying government spending, they tend to mean this in terms of cutting things they don’t support. A Republican wanting to cut domestic social spending isn’t new. A Republican adding a bloated military into the mix is less common.
Paul is creating divergent arguments within the Republican Party – no longer is the establishment way the only way. Tea Party-backed senators may be screeching about government and executive over-reach, but only one of them made the Senate stop working for a day. It is about time – particularly after an election in which they didn’t fare well – there were more divergent arguments within the Republican Party about its attitude to war, taxation, marriage, foreign aid and where to cut spending.
Paul may have tweaked his beliefs to become a more palatable libertarian, but he has worked himself into a position where he isn’t on the extremes of the party, like his father was.
He certainly doesn’t fit comfortably into the mainstream, but a significant portion of the American public is beginning to realise that the mainstream inside Washington DC, and the mainstream outside it, may not be all that congruent.

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