By Frank Rich
The junior senator from Kentucky would be an appalling right-wing president, and yet he is a valuable politician: a man of conviction, and a visitation from a post-Obama political future.
In the Labor Day weekend scramble set off by President Obama’s zero-hour about-face on Syria, the only visible politician in Washington who knew just what he wanted to say and said it was the junior senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul. Appearing after John Kerry on Meet the Press that Sunday, Paul reminded viewers of Kerry’s famous Vietnam-era locution, then said he would like to ask him a question of his own: “How can you ask a man to be the first one to die for a mistake?”
There were no surprises in Paul’s adamant opposition to a military strike. But after a chaotic week of White House feints and fumbles accompanied by vamping and vacillation among leaders in both parties, the odd duck from Kentucky emerged as an anchor of principle, the signal amid the noise. Paul’s constancy was particularly conspicuous in contrast to his presumed Republican presidential rivals in 2016, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, and Ted Cruz. Though each of them had waxed hawkish about Syria in the past—in Rubio’s case, just the week before—they held their fire over Labor Day weekend, stuck their fingers to the pollsters’ wind, and then more or less fell in with Paul’s noninterventionist bottom line once they emerged. It’s not the first time that Paul had proved the leader of the pack in which he was thought to be the joker.
This has been quite a year for Paul. Not long ago, he was mainly known as the son of the (now retired) gadfly Texas congressman Ron Paul, the perennial presidential loser who often seemed to have wandered into GOP-primary debates directly from an SNL sketch. Like his father, Rand Paul has been dismissed by most Democrats as a tea-party kook and by many grandees in his own party as a libertarian kook; the Republican Establishment in his own state branded him “too kooky for Kentucky” in his first bid for public office. Now BuzzFeed has anointed him “the de facto foreign policy spokesman for the GOP”—a stature confirmed when he followed Obama’s prime-time speech on the Syrian standoff with a televised mini-address of his own.
But even before an international crisis thrust him center stage, Paul had become this year’s most compelling and prescient political actor. His ascent began in earnest in March with the Twitter-certified #standwithrand sensation of his Ayn Rand and Gabriel García Márquez. He has, in the words of Rich Lowry of National Review, “that quality that can’t be learned or bought: He’s interesting.” In that sense, he’s kind of a Eugene McCarthy of the right, destined to shake things up without necessarily reaping the rewards for himself.
Though he has been at or near the top of near-meaningless early primary polling, he is nonetheless a long shot to ascend to the top of the GOP ticket, let alone to the White House. And a good thing too: A Paul presidency would be a misfortune for the majority of Americans who would be devastated by his regime of minimalist government. But as we begin to imagine a post-Obama national politics where the Democratic presidential front-runners may be of Social Security age and the Republicans lack a presumptive leader or a coherent path forward, he can hardly be dismissed. Nature abhors a vacuum, and Paul doesn’t hide his ambitions to fill it. In his own party, he’s the one who is stirring the drink, having managed in his very short political career (all of three years) to have gained stature in spite of (or perhaps because of) his ability to enrage and usurp such GOP heavyweights as John McCain, Mitch McConnell, and Chris Christie. He is one of only two putative presidential contenders in either party still capable of doing something you don’t expect or saying something that hasn’t been freeze-dried into anodyne Frank Luntz–style drivel by strategists and focus groups. The other contender in the spontaneous-authentic political sweepstakes is Christie, but like an actor who’s read too many of his rave reviews, he’s already turning his bully-in-a-china-shop routine into Jersey shtick. (So much so that if he modulates it now, he’ll come across as a phony.) Paul doesn’t do shtick, he rarely engages in sound bites or sloganeering, and his language has not been balled up by a stint in law school or an M.B.A. program. (He’s an ophthalmologist.) He speaks as if he were thinking aloud and has a way of making his most radical notions sound plausible in the moment. It doesn’t hurt that some of what he says also makes sense.
The sum of his credo can be found in his unvarnished new book. Titled Government Bullies: How Everyday Americans Are Being Harassed, Abused and Imprisoned by the Feds, it’s a repetitive catalogue of anecdotes showcasing ordinary citizens and small businesses that have been hounded by idiotic government regulations or bureaucrats or both. The most universal of these horror stories is the one that happened to Paul himself—a Kafkaesque manhandling by TSA airport inspectors that’s bound to hit home with anyone who has passed through security at an American airport. Paul’s other tales of woe are no doubt equally true, and often egregious. The problem is that out of such grievances he builds a blanket case for castrating or doing away with most government agencies and regulations, from his father’s bête noire the Federal Reserve to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration (not to mention the requisite three or four Cabinet departments on any right-wing politician’s hit list). So instinctive is his defense of commerce against government interference that he defended BP during the Gulf spill (“Accidents happen”) and condemned the Obama administration for putting its “boot heel on the throat” of the oil giant. It’s the same ideological conviction that led him, in his 2010 senatorial campaign, to revive the self-immolating Barry Goldwater argument that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was flawed by its imposition of racial integration on “private enterprise” like, say, lunch counters.
What separates Paul from many of his tea-party peers is his meticulous insistence on blaming Republicans and Democrats alike for the outrages he finds in every tentacle of the federal Leviathan. He also takes a moderate rhetorical tone, far removed from that of the other right-wing politicians, Fox News talking heads, and radio bloviators who share his views. “I believe no one has the right to pollute another person’s property, and if it occurs the polluter should be made to pay for cleanup and damages,” he writes in one typical passage. “I am not against all regulation. I am against overzealous regulation.” There’s no “Don’t Tread on Me” overkill in his public preachments. He harbors no impeachment fantasies and not so much as a scintilla of Obama hatred even as he leads the charge against what he sees as the oppressive government nightmare of Obamacare. This has been the case from the start. When Paul began running for the Senate, it was during the red-hot tea-party year of 2009, with its tsunami of raucous town-hall meetings and death threats to the president. Paul gladly accepted Palin’s endorsement, but never succumbed to those swamp fevers. Though the liberal editorial page of the Louisville Courier-Journal was dismissive of his views during his Senate race, it went out of its way to observe that the man himself was “neither an angry nor resentful person” and was instead “thoughtful and witty in an elfin sort of way.”
Paul’s opponent in that primary, the Kentucky secretary of State, Trey Grayson, was endorsed by a Who’s Who of the Establishment, from McConnell, the state’s senior senator, to the neocon compadres Dick Cheney and Rudy Giuliani. Polls showed that primary voters favored Grayson’s national-security views over Paul’s by a three-to-one ratio. But Paul won in a landslide, a feat he easily replicated against his Democratic adversary in the general election. Since that rout, the balance of power between McConnell and Paul has reversed.
It’s not every day you see a party’s leader in the United States Senate play sycophant to a freshman two decades his junior. But having failed to stop Paul, McConnell is desperate to be in his good graces as he faces a possible tea-party challenge from the right in his reelection bid next year. This has led him to hire a longtime aide to both Pauls, Jesse Benton, as his campaign manager even though Benton isn’t precisely in awe of his new client: He was caught on tape saying that he was “sort of holding my nose” to take on the assignment, and was doing so mainly because it “is going to be a big benefit for Rand in ’16.” McConnell is holding his own nose over that and much more. He has signed on to Paul’s pet cause of legalizing the farming of hemp for industrial use—a development that would seem as remote as John Boehner’s declaring himself a Dead Head. And to the astonishment of those who regard McConnell as the epitome of Republican orthodoxy, he threw in his lot with Paul on Syria too, becoming the only one of either party’s leaders in either chamber of Congress to oppose intervention.
McConnell’s self-interested stand on Syria is but an addendum to a large and substantive sea change in GOP foreign policy, much of it attributable to Paul. The complacent neocon Establishment has been utterly blindsided. Just ask Bill Kristol, who had predicted that only five Republican Senators would join Paul in opposing military action in Syria—a vote count off by more than 400 percent. And just ask Christie, who attacked Paul’s national-security views this summer from what he no doubt thought was the unassailable political and intellectual high ground—only to find out he had missed the shift in his own party’s internal debate. In retrospect, both the Christie-Paul brawl and its antecedent—the interparty debate that followed Paul’s thirteen-hour homage to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in March—are signal events in understanding how Paul’s stature and allure keep growing among Republican voters while his rivals seem ever smaller, shriller, and impotent.