Rand Paul has cast himself as a Diogenes for the modern era, a truth-seeker who can't seem to find an honest man — or woman — no matter where he shines his lamp in Washington. That's why his willingness to say almost anything about himself and other Republicans, regardless of whether it's true, poses an existential threat to his brand.
It's only a matter of time before the offended start punching back publicly, and that will surely start with fellow Republicans. Many of them had a right to be aggrieved after Paul's speech this weekend at the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit in New Hampshire.
Paul ripped John McCain, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Orrin Hatch for not being pure enough on tax cuts.
"When is the last time you heard a Republican run for president who said they will cut taxes or follow through with it?" he asked with rhetorical flourish. "With our last two nominees, I do not remember tax cuts being part of the program."
Here's McCain calling for tax cuts, and here's Romney. And, of course, there's a U-Haul truck full of Republican candidates promising to do just that right now. It's one thing for Paul to present himself as a purist; it's another to accuse fellow Republicans of failing a tax-cut litmus test — especially when he can't keep his own story straight.
On Saturday, Paul appealed for tax cuts that would benefit the poor, some of which he's repeatedly voted against — including on a non-binding budget amendment just last month — on the Senate floor. That amendment was adopted on a 73–27 vote with fellow Republican presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz voting in favor. Paul has also misstated the level of fraud in the earned-income tax credit program.
In private conversations, Republicans often say they can't trust that Paul will say the same thing tomorrow that he's saying today. His tendency to run away from himself — and to misrepresent the positions of fellow Republicans — undermines the core appeal of his candidacy.
"Given that Rand had staked foreign policy positions far out of the Republican mainstream, it's no surprise that he has modified some of those positions over the past weeks and months," one veteran GOP strategist said. "But that doesn't mean, especially when it comes to Israel, that Rand's positions, old and new, won't be viewed skeptically by a large portion of Republican primary voters."
Then there's Paul's recalibration on foreign policy, in which he's moved from hardcore isolationist to isolationist with a long footnote describing the limited instances in which it makes sense for the US to engage abroad.
Paul is sprinting away from the isolationist tones he sounded for most of his brief tenure in Washington.
"If we want to protect and continue prosperity at home, we have to defend ourselves ... But we have to decide when getting involved is good and when it is not so good," he said Saturday. "I'm not saying don't be involved around the world, don't protect our interests. We do have to do something."
But he's actually said that — and acted on it.
It's easy to forget that Paul proposed a budget in 2011 that would have ended all US foreign aid. After all, Paul has apparently forgotten that. It's also easy to overestimate the revenue that would be saved by redirecting that money to domestic purposes. The US spends less than 1 percent of its budget on foreign aid.
To his credit, Paul has matured in his view of foreign aid over time. Where he once tried to end it all, he's now focused on cutting support for particular countries and causes, such as Pakistan and the moderate opposition in Syria. And there are certainly merits to a variety of plans for reshaping the way the United States delivers money to friends and potential allies across the globe. But it's his tendency to take an extreme position at first blush and then wander toward reality that worries many Republicans — not to mention most Democrats.
In that vein, Paul has called for a declaration of war against ISIS — a position that many who believe in the legislative branch's constitutional role in foreign policy can support. He also sponsored funding for Israel's Iron Dome defense system. But all of that came after he realized his reflexive antipathy to US foreign policy was untenable in both a Republican presidential primary and the general election.
On taxes, Paul's a mixed bag. On the one hand, he's supporting the premise behind President Obama's plan to tax corporate earnings held overseas and use the money to fund infrastructure projects. Paul's Democratic co-sponsor, Barbara Boxer of California, is desperate to find cash to fund a highway bill before she retires in 2017. Their one-time repatriation plan would force companies to bring money back to the US and tax it at a much lower level —6.5 percent — than the 35 percent corporate tax rate, the 14 percent Obama would apply to cash currently held overseas (whether it is repatriated or not), and the 19 percent levy he would attach to future foreign earnings of US corporations.
On the other hand, Paul criticizes Republicans who are eager enough to cut corporate taxes that they're willing to do it in a way that is revenue-neutral. By reference, though not by name, he even took a shot at Republican committee chairmen — Hatch on Senate Finance and Ryan on House Ways and Means — who want revenue-neutral tax reform. "If that is what we are for, I'm going home," he said Saturday.
"Even before announcing, Rand and his campaign have shown a willingness to attack all comers, even popular Republicans not running for president. It's hard to tell is there is a strategy behind this and, if so, what that strategy is," the GOP strategist said. "The Paul campaign would do well to think more strategically about the criticisms it makes — randomly attacking a popular conservative like Paul Ryan is no way to win the Republican nomination."
The idea behind Paul's rhetoric on corporate taxes is that the US economy will grow if the rate is cut without a base-broadening offset, a staple of Republican orthodoxy. But more pragmatic GOP leaders in Congress have concluded that there's no path to reform without Democratic support, and that even the slimmed-down version of the government they prefer would be hard-pressed to operate with a major blow to revenue.
Moreover, economic analysts say there's no historical correlation between the corporate tax rate and economic growth. A recent review of corporate tax and growth rates around the world shows there's no correlation between the two metrics now.
Paul stands at odds with his party on foreign policy. He's at odds with himself on tax cuts for lower- and middle-income Americans and with leading Republicans in Congress on a realistic way to implement a reduction in corporate tax rates. There is one leg of the GOP policy stool on which he still stands strong: less government. But if you're searching for a reason that he hasn't gotten as much traction in national polls as Jeb Bush or Scott Walker, look no further than his casual relationship with the truth when it comes to his own positions and those of fellow Republicans.