Rand Paul’s Republican revolution
By: Katie Glueck
February 18, 2014 05:00 AM EST
DALLAS — It’s 7 a.m. on a Saturday, Rand Paul is exhausted and airport security has just confiscated his morning joe.
“The TSA took away my coffee,” the libertarian-leaning senator, Houston-bound for a day of events with GOP activists, complains of the federal agency he’s proposed abolishing. “I offered to drink it to show it wasn’t a bomb.”
The Kentucky Republican has many more sleep-deprived moments in store as he prepares for a near-certain 2016 presidential bid. On an early February political swing through his native Texas, where Paul was joined by a POLITICO reporter, the contradictions and challenges that would define such a run were on vivid display — as was Paul’s belief that his blend of libertarian-infused conservatism could forge an entirely new path to the White House.
In an extensive in-flight interview, the first-term senator outlined his vision for a more inclusive GOP — only to meet a frosty response hours later when he spoke favorably about immigration to a roomful of people enamored of the tea party’s luminary of the moment, Sen. Ted Cruz.
Paul didn’t talk much during the trip about his roots as the son of an ex-congressman and libertarian folk hero. But Texans at every turn brought up his father, the highly polarizing former Rep. Ron Paul, from whom Rand Paul knows he must stake out a separate identity to have any shot at the GOP nomination.
And as Paul argued that the GOP needs a 2016 standard-bearer with broader appeal than its recent nominees, Mitt Romney and John McCain, he did not evince Barack Obama’s ability to move a crowd, George W. Bush’s everyman relatability or Bill Clinton’s love of the game.
At the same time, Paul made clear his ambition to remake the Republican Party by drawing support from constituencies that have voted reliably Democratic. Just as Ronald Reagan drew working-class Democrats into the GOP fold and Bill Clinton pulled his party to the political center, Paul has a vision of that magnitude in mind for his party.
“The country’s a mess, and I think there needs to be a program that Republicans put forward, and also there needs to be a messenger who can actually win,” Paul said, in perhaps his most overt remarks to date about what a presidential bid would look like. “And I’m concerned that if we put forward the same sort of candidate again, that we won’t be successful.”
Sporting a gray suit, red tie and cowboy boots, Paul said ideas that fall into the “libertarian-slash-Republican” camp “are a bit different from what we’ve done in the past” and could expand the GOP tent. Those proposals go beyond his well-known problems with National Security Agency surveillance, which led him to file a class-action lawsuit against the agency last week. Drug policy reforms, Paul said, would particularly resonate in minority communities that have largely shut out Republicans.
And opposing indefinite detention of detainees, he said, would strike a chord with groups that historically have been persecuted.
“I think that our message … has great appeal if you are part of any kind of group that’s ever been mistreated in history,” he said. “That could be African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Japanese-Americans, all of which, at times in our history, haven’t been treated as they should be.”
Paul rode the tea party wave to an upset win in 2010, and he developed a reputation during his first few years in the Senate as a persistent thorn in the side of GOP leaders. But over the past several months, while his policy positions haven’t shifted much, he has refrained from leading the rhetorical charge against establishment figures in his own party. A case in point: It was Cruz who spearheaded the fight that led to the government shutdown, while Paul largely kept his head down and even invited Democrats to a coffee summit to smooth things over.
Paul has also made a point to visit minority communities and has been among the most aggressive in his party about promoting outreach to nontraditional GOP voting blocs.
At an event in Houston that night, Paul bluntly summarized the political perils of not broadening the GOP base — especially in a place like Texas, which is nearly 40 percent Hispanic. Speaking to a crowd of more than 600 high-dollar donors, party activists, and state legislators and candidates at an otherwise festive Harris County GOP dinner, Paul warned that “Texas is going to be a Democrat state within 10 years if we don’t change.”
Though he didn’t support the so-called Gang of Eight immigration compromise, Paul but has since made clear he would be open to reform that goes beyond securing the borders. “That means we evolve,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we give up on what we believe in, but it means we have to be a welcoming party.”
He added, “What I’ll continue to say, and it’s not an exact policy prescription, … but if you want to work and you want a job and you want to be part of America, we’ll find a place for you.”
The otherwise-friendly audience greeted the comment with only scattered applause, a noticeably quieter reaction than some of his other lines received. That caused Paul to remark, good-naturedly, that the response was “kind of tepid.”
Paul’s softer language on immigration comes amid warnings that the GOP could lose a generation of Latinos to Democrats. But the Republican base wants no part of far-reaching reform. And the problem for Paul is that conservative activists he’ll need in early presidential states could gravitate to another candidate who takes the hard line they want.
Another candidate, for example, such as Cruz.
In Texas, which may be the fifth primary contest of 2016, activist Republicans are intrigued by Paul. But they are obsessed with Cruz, their junior senator. The chairman of the Harris County GOP, which hosted Paul’s Saturday night address, even invoked Cruz in a statement announcing Paul’s speech: “It is a great honor to have a man who stood shoulder to shoulder with Sen. Ted Cruz against tyranny in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
While the two have joined forces in several policy battles, Cruz’s combative approach cuts a sharp contrast with the low-key Paul, who is prone to snarky asides (“the good news is, your government’s open. The bad news is, your government’s open,” he likes to say) rather than soaring rhetoric. In Houston, people were more likely to invoke Cruz in describing their philosophy than they were Paul.
“I’m a Sarah Palin-Ted Cruz-tea party conservative,” said David Jackson, 53, a Harris County conservative activist who works in oil and gas, after Paul’s speech.
Paul appears to have concluded over roughly the past year that popularity within the tea party alone can’t carry him to the White House; ideological purity can’t come at the expense of electability.
That recognition has produced some unlikely political alliances for him. Paul angered activists last year when he endorsed the one Republican the tea party most wants to defeat in the November midterms: Minority Leader and fellow Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell.
On this weekend, Paul’s rapprochement with the Republican establishment was embodied in the form of Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the GOP whip. Four years ago, McConnell made it his mission to elect Paul’s primary opponent, and Cornyn, as head of the Republican Senate campaign arm, was right by the minority leader’s side.
But at a candlelit meal in a cavernous Hilton ballroom filled by Republican activists and politicians — many of whom sported cowboy boots under their suits and Texas flag pins on their lapels — it was Paul being embraced by the state’s senior senator.
Facing his own primary challenge from the right next month, Cornyn let everyone know he’s in sync with the Cruzes and Pauls of the Senate. “Every day, Ted and Rand and I wake up, get outta bed and push back on the Obama agenda,” Cornyn said in introducing Paul, whom he called “one of the brightest new stars in the Republican Party, someone with courage, intelligence and principles who can help us win elections and reclaim our country.”
The gushing words underscored Paul’s remarkable trajectory within his party: from insurgent challenger four years ago, to headache for Senate leadership, to having the Senate whip himself offer Paul’s warm-up act.
Paul then ascended the stage to deliver his standard speech, decrying government spending and taxes and outlining his vision for growing the party. He spoke calmly and logically, rarely raising his voice as he depicted the government as bumbling and incompetent. In this speech and others, he dished up wry humor and some applause lines. But aside from when Paul took a swipe at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over Benghazi, the response from the audience was mostly restrained.
Despite his largely understated approach on stage, Paul has gone out of his way to show Republicans he’s not afraid to throw a punch. Two of his favorite targets are Chris Christie and Bill Clinton. Asked at one point over the weekend about the scandal-gripped New Jersey governor, he said he has “always liked people who speak their mind.”
“What at one time was endearing to many people was the fact that he was forthright and direct,” he said. Whether that still stands, Paul added, “is unknown.”
More blatantly, in recent weeks Paul has repeatedly gone after former President Bill Clinton over the nearly two-decade-old Monica Lewinsky scandal, raising eyebrows among some Republicans and drawing outrage from MSNBC and the Democratic National Committee. In an interview with POLITICO before the trip, Paul stressed that the president’s past indiscretions don’t “really apply” to his wife, Hillary Clinton, a likely Democratic presidential front-runner. But the jabs were widely seen as Paul showing Republicans he’s ready to hit Democrats where it hurts.
“Republicans are as pro-women’s rights as any other group out there,” he said. “If [Democrats] are going to say [otherwise], they need to explain why they defended a guy who really had his own personal war on women going on.”
The figure who loomed largest over Paul’s trip wasn’t Cruz or Clinton or Christie — it was his father, former Rep. Ron Paul. The three-time presidential candidate came up time and again, in part, no doubt, because he represented a Houston-area district for almost three decades in Congress.
But it was also a reminder that, should Rand Paul run for president, he would reap both the benefits and burdens of his father’s legacy. Ron Paul’s isolationist, anti-Big Government message inspired legions of college libertarians but made him easy to dismiss as a national candidate.
Now, the younger Paul is working to avoid being similarly marginalized. But it’s an ongoing challenge given the senator’s own libertarian-leaning views.
He frequently spars with GOP colleagues like Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina over foreign policy and defense, and his crusade against the NSA has raised hackles on both sides of the aisle. Last week, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the most powerful Democrats in the Senate, said that he was “to the right” of Paul in the civil liberties-national security clash at the heart of arguments over the NSA.
Paul, in the interview, insisted he’s not worried that his party will deem him too soft on national security.
“Everybody likes me,” the 51-year-old said with a grin. On a more serious note, he continued, “I think all Republicans aren’t exactly the same or in the same place. But I think over time people have discovered that a lot of the common beliefs that Republicans have — that national defense [in my view] is one of the most important, if not the most important, things the federal government does.”
At a rally on Friday night for a state Senate candidate, there was a wellspring of enthusiasm for the entire Paul family. But the crowd also included a much smaller handful of rally-goers passing out materials from the controversial John Birch Society. They did not appear to be representative of the crowd, but their presence would almost certainly be fodder for opponents in a presidential campaign.
At the event, Rand Paul stood backstage, rocking back and forth before going on to rally support for the candidate, Don Huffines, a tea party-backed insurgent. He is a longtime friend of the Paul family and among the first state-level candidates to receive the senator’s endorsement.
“Well, I see a little of Ron in Rand, I do, but not as much as I would have thought,” Huffines reflected. But, he was quick to note, “They travel different paths. Rand’s his own man, Ron was his own man.”
The morning after the rally, Paul — who remarked several times during the trip that he needed to stop talking to save his voice and that he wished he had more weekend time at home in Kentucky — struck up a conversation with the flight attendants. One told Paul that she and her family were fans of his dad, and they were praying for them both.
“Your father’s a great man and we need your help,” she said. “We need our country back.”
As the plane touched down in Houston, Paul thanked the flight attendant for her kind words.
“There might be a time when we need voters in Texas,” he said. “We’ll see.”