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Paulitics of naked ambition: US GOP Senator Rand Paul wants to be the first libertarian president

Official Candidate Number Two – Kentucky Senator Rand Paul – has announced his intention to seek the Republican Party’s nomination to be that party’s presidential candidate for the 2016 election. Paul stands out as a surprisingly idiosyncratic possibility for his party, and J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at Paul’s announcement, as well as a quick look at some of the senator’s positions on issues he will be challenged on in this effort.

…Don’t you love farce? My fault I hear
I thought that you’d want what I want
Sorry my dear but where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns, quick, send in the clowns

What a surprise, who could foresee?
I’ve come to feel about you what you felt about me
Why only now when I see that you’ve drifted away
What a surprise, what a cliche?

Isn’t it rich, isn’t it queer?
Losing my timing this late in my career
And where are the clowns? Quick, send in the clowns
Don’t bother, they’re here.

Send in the Clowns’ from Stephen Sondheim’s
‘A Little Night Music’

Suddenly the starting whistle has blown, the buzzer has sounded, the tocsin has tolled, the bell has rung, and damned near every other sports journalism auditory cliché has already been used to signal the real beginning, the real formal beginning, of the Republican chase for that party’s nomination to be its candidate in the 2016 US presidential election. The pushing and shoving is now at hand.

With two senators now formally in the race – first Texas Senator Ted Cruz and now Kentucky Senator Rand Paul – most of the other likely possibilities such as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Dr Ben Carson (we know, we know), Bobby Jindal, and just possibly Mike Pence and several more (some analysts predict as many as twenty political figures will ultimately seek the GOP’s presidential nomination), a full-scale scrum of Republicans who have drunk the “I want to be president Kool Aid” will soon be on the field. And in the midst of all of these will almost certainly come an announcement that Hillary Rodham Clinton will formally be seeking the Democratic nomination as well.

On Tuesday, 7 April, around ten months before the first caucus and primary take place respectively in Iowa and New Hampshire, Rand Paul launched his campaign with the declaration he wants to live in the White House so he can “return our country to the principles of liberty and limited government.” That came on his website and it was designed to set up expectations for his speech that came a few hours later on Tuesday in Louisville, Kentucky where he fleshed out an answer to what makes him the right man for the job – after one term of office as a senator. But that has been the easy part. While he has been a fierce critic of the current Democratic administration of President Obama, simultaneously he has often been out of step – particularly on small things like foreign policy and defence spending – with the leadership and predominant views of most of the rest of his own party.

Now the candidate’s task is to convince all those Republican primary voters and caucus-participants that his vision is the one worth being embraced for the 2016 general election. Rand Paul is the eye doctor son of former Republican Texas Congressman Ron Paul, a man who unsuccessfully chased his party’s nomination for the presidency twice. How Paul manages to holds onto his father’s supporters’ enthusiasm (given their frequent location outside the usual confines of mainstream Republican principles), even as he shifts carefully towards that same mainstream, will be a key test of the brand-new “Rand Paul for President” campaign.

As far as the candidate must be hoping for, reporters heard the comments of people like Eric Thomas of Knoxville, Tennessee who said while he was waiting to hear Paul’s speech, “Rand, I think, encompasses those same principles (as his father), but he also realises the pragmatism that is necessary to bring those principles to fruition in American politics today.” Some Ron Paul libertarians will doubtless find that approach to be something of a betrayal of first principles, however.

When Paul gave his announcement speech, he told his crowd, “I have a message, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words. We have come to take our country back! We have come to take our country back from the special interests that use Washington as their personal piggy bank, the special interests that are more concerned with their personal welfare than the general welfare.”

He went on to say, sounding more than a little like some Democratic Party candidates who have been heard over the years, “The message of liberty, opportunity and justice is for all Americans, whether you wear a suit, a uniform or overalls, whether you’re white or black, rich or poor. Many Americans, though, are being left behind. The reward of work seems beyond their grasp. Under the watch of both parties – the poor seem to get poorer and the rich get richer.”

Attempting to tap into what he must hope are really deep frustrations with the ways of Washington, Paul went on to say, “I worry that the opportunity and hope are slipping away for our sons and daughters. What kind of America will our grandchildren see? It seems to me that both parties and the entire political system are to blame.” In taking this approach of criticising his own party, Paul also seemed to be trying to distinguish himself from all those other typical politicians – thereby setting himself up as the un-politician politician.

The AP noted in its coverage of his speech, “Cheers erupted when he decried government searches of phones and computer records as a threat to civil liberties. Most Republicans defend the practice as a necessary defence against terrorism, but Paul said the programs only provide a false sense of security. ‘I say that your phone records are yours. I say the phone records of law-abiding citizens are none of their damn business,’ Paul said.”

While Paul seems positioned to challenge the largely similar views of most other would-be candidates on public policy themes within his party, Rand Paul is also poised to shake up the guts of the campaigning process itself through a focus on innovative ways of using social media and the rest of the Internet to connect with a hoped-for youth vote eager to join in Paul’s crusade. These already include a Q & A session on Facebook with voters following his Louisville speech. Such efforts will mean his competitors will now have to sort out how they will follow this path as well, in spite of any predilections they may have to follow the more traditional forms of retail politicking and campaigning.

With his Louisville speech now over, for the rest of the week Paul will “barnstorm” four early-voting states with events in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Iowa and Nevada, in what is being labelled the “Stand with Rand” tour. Each stop will highlight a different theme. For instance, on Wednesday, he will discuss civil liberties in New Hampshire, while on the next day, in South Carolina the spotlight will be on national defence issues where he will use the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown as the symbolic backdrop. Very telegenic prop, that ship.

In terms of his search for all those younger voters, some survey data may be giving the candidate and his staff some hope of finding and making a connection with that demographic. As the Washington Post has noted, “Paul has also been tirelessly reaching out to young people, speaking at colleges and universities around the country for the last year and a half. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll, Paul runs three times as well among voters under 50 than over 50. And he’s staking a claim to tech during the 2016 cycle, opening offices in Austin and Silicon Valley and using platforms like Snapchat to win over younger voters who may not respond to traditional political ad buys or outreach efforts. Paul is also trying to tap into the vast well of tech money, holding meetings with big-pocketed potential donors in California and other tech hubs.”

Interested readers and potential voters can already buy iPhone cases branded with his logo, signed copies of the Constitution, and even one of those ever-popular Rand Paul beer steins from his website. Really. This is not just a way to flog merchandise, however, of course. In addition to just selling stuff, the information so collected quickly becomes a very useful database of likely contributors for the longer run of his campaign.

Nevertheless, the real challenge will be how well Rand Paul can connect with the bulk of the Republican Party’s would-be supporters in all the various primaries and caucuses. This is where voters actually pick the delegates who become pledged to select the ultimate nominee, let alone with all voters in the actual general election in November 2016.

In his previous statements while in the Senate, Paul has been something of a renegade in his party at times. He has questioned a need for the size and footprint of the US military establishment and called for an easing of drug laws that imprison offenders at major costs to taxpayers. Moreover, he has opposed the usual strong GOP support for surveillance programs, drone use policies, as well as continuing sanctions on Iran and Cuba. For most Republicans, such positions would be thought to be something of a death wish for a candidate. Nevertheless, and inevitably perhaps, Rand Paul is already feinting this way and that to slowly and gently find a way back to rhetorical positions that would be more in keeping with other Republican politicians – and most Republican voters.

Along the way, Paul has been vocal in claiming his party has given itself self-inflicted wounds in finding new support for future elections beyond its well-worn relationships with its usual demographic of supporters. Or, as he said at a Conservative Political Action Conference in February, “Too often when Republicans have won we’ve squandered our victory by becoming part of the Washington machine. That’s not who I am. That’s not why I ran for office the first time just a few years ago… It seems to me that both parties and the entire political system are to blame. Big government and debt doubled under a Republican administration. And it’s now tripling under Barack Obama’s watch… White, black, brown, rich, poor, with tattoos and without tattoos, with earrings and without earrings. We need to take our message where it’s not been before.” Not particularly surprisingly, of course, some black political activists have criticised such statements as heavy on rhetoric and opportunism, rather than a “walk the walk” business out of long-held principles.

In terms of his relationships with the rest of his party, The Washington Post also said of him after he had announced for the presidency, “…Paul has repeatedly sparred with some of his GOP colleagues, including both Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and likely challenger Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) over foreign policy and other issues. But as he has approached his presidential run, Paul has been mending fences with many Republican colleagues, including his state’s senior senator, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell has endorsed Paul’s push for a Kentucky presidential caucus, which would allow the junior senator to run for president and his Senate seat simultaneously.”

Meanwhile, trying to pin down such shifts and put them in the crosshairs to take better aim at them, one hard-line neo-conservative, former UN Ambassador John Bolton has said of Paul, “The issue on Sen. Paul and national security issues is where he comes down in the continuing conflict between his principles and his ambition.” Bolton, it should be noted, has also floated his name as a possible candidate, although the odds of his becoming the candidate would seem to be a googolplex larger than that of Paul’s.

In a previous statement three years earlier, Paul had said about defence policy, “The DOD [Department of Defense] should not be treated sacrosanct with regard to the treatment of taxpayer dollars.” That was then; but this is now. A month ago, Paul advocated a 16% increase in defence spending. In response to such statements, Bolton went on to say, “On any given day, it’s hard to know where he will be. I believe in redemption, and I hope he comes all the way over. But I just don’t know what’s at work in his mind.” Not the ringing endorsement Paul might have wanted to gain from a near-charter member and near-chief ideologue of the GOP’s neo-con club.

Others are less than convinced of his appropriateness as the GOP standard bearer. One group not formally connected to any other candidate has already promised to spend a million dollars-plus on ads criticising Senator Paul’s positions on the current Iran sanctions – ads that have been set to begin running now that he has declared himself a candidate.

It is possible Paul is not totally convinced he can clinch the nomination as he will almost certainly also run for re-election for the Senate for a new six-year term, in addition to seeking the presidential nomination nod – just in case someone like Jeb Bush, Scott Walker or Marco Rubio pips him at the polls. By contrast, Senator Rubio has already announced that if he runs for president, he will not simultaneously attempt to hold onto his Senate seat.

Back when it was first coming into focus, eye doctor Senator Rand Paul was seriously considering a run for the presidency, this publication took its first look at the Kentucky senator. We noted that in becoming a senator, according his own bio, Paul sees himself as “an outspoken champion for constitutional liberties and fiscal responsibility, and a warrior against government overreach. Among his first legislative proposals: cutting $500 billion in federal spending and a plan to balance the federal budget in just five years.”

Moreover, his website argued Paul “has been a vocal advocate for term limits, a balanced-budget amendment, a Read the Bills Act, and an audit of the Federal Reserve. He has gained prominence for his independent positions on many political issues.” His bio has yet to point to any particular legislative successes, however. Once in the Senate, Paul has become noticed for some unlikely alliances with Democrats on a number of occasions as well. For example, he became a co-author of bills on criminal justice reform measures together with New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker, and he has supported the legalisation of medical marijuana with both Booker and New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Criminal justice reform has become one of Paul’s name-brand issues, with the hope it would help him make some inroads with largely Democratic Party-supporting black voters.

Our earlier profile went on to note, “This writer confesses he has never actually figured out what this hypnotic fixation right-wing Republicans and libertarian types have with the Federal Reserve Banking system means and why they think the bank has a closet of terrible, dark secrets that must be ferreted out in some additional audit process beyond the usual audits of its activities. The bank routinely and statutorily reports to Congress; it issues voluminous documentation; and Reserve Bank chairmen frequently testify – in excruciating, mind-numbing detail – to congressional committees.

Perhaps someday, somebody will explain what they hope to find out about the Fed – and why they think it will have any impact on the country’s economic circumstances once they get that hoped-for audit. Is someone really prepared to argue the country does not need an independent, tightly managed central bank to regulate the money supply and help rein in inflation? The British, the Germans, the French, the South Africans, pretty much every nation, even the Russians and Chinese, have just such institutions.

For the nonce, however, we’ll just slide this conundrum over into that pending tray until Rand Paul is a declared candidate and his views on the Fed are properly interrogated. (In the meantime, however, no hate mail, and no rants about how the Rothschilds own everything, in cahoots with the House of Morgan, please.)”

Our earlier profile also noted, “The particular problem for a candidate from the right, as with Rand Paul, is in figuring out a way to do the dog-whistle to the right, even as he isn’t forced into saying things that release a storm of protest from everybody else and then have to change his comments.” Then as now, Paul will be doing that dance in appearances across the country in a large number of often-mind-numbing, repetitive speech events, meet-and-greets, coffee mornings, hand-shaking events at sports matches and factory entrances, as well as the other fixtures of the campaign trail, all in addition to all the technological bells and whistles his staff will contrive to set up for his benefit. By getting out in front of the game, Paul has a chance to set the agenda within his party that other candidates and would-be candidates must respond to, rather than be able to stake out their own stances – something the media will be only too happy to oblige initially in the months ahead.

Soon enough, we shall run out of fingers (and maybe toes too) in keeping track of all the Republicans who want to be president – and it is going to take more than that anatomy to keep track of all the positions on all the issues that come up during that time from all those candidates. Fortunately, The Daily Maverick will be doing it, just for you. DM

Main photo: A file photograph showing US Republican Senator Rand Paul speaks during the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s ‘Road to Majority’ conference in Washington, DC, USA, 20 June 2014. Rand Paul on 07 April 2015 announced on his website that he will run for US president in 2016. EPA/DREW ANGERER

Among the tsunami of reporting on this announcement already, for more, read:

  • Kentucky’s Rand Paul: ‘I am running for president’ at the AP;

  • Rand Paul Officially Announces 2016 Presidential Campaign on Website at Slate.com;

  • Kentucky’s Rand Paul: ‘I am running for president’ at the AP;

  • Rand Paul announces presidential run at the Washington Post;

  • Rand Paul: ‘I’m running for president’ at Politico.com;

  • Rand Paul Says ‘I Am Running for President’ at the New York Times;

  • A Changed Rand Paul Vows to Change the Republican Party at Time;

And, lest readers forget, over in the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton’s stealth campaign is gearing up for its own long-expected announcement of her candidacy, in:

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