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Where Rand Paul stands on everything from foreign policy to criminal justice

Rand Paul
Rand Paul
Alex Wong / Getty

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is running for president — and he's unmistakably a candidate of ideas.

Paul wants a much smaller federal government that does much less — and he's laid out a detailed plan for what this would look like. On foreign policy, he wants to be far more cautious about using the military abroad — a challenge to his party's orthodoxy. He wants to reform our criminal justice system's sentencing and drug laws. And he strongly opposes abortion and supports gun rights.

Though he's been in the Senate only four years, Paul has managed to place himself at the center of many policy debates — and his candidacy should lead to a substantive, issue-focused debate on where this country should go.

Drastically shrink the federal government — much more than Paul Ryan would

It's common for candidates on the right to propose cutting government spending while avoiding specifics about what, exactly, they'd get rid of. Not Paul — since he joined the Senate in 2011, he's proposed three extensively detailed blueprints for what he'd actually cut. And, as Dylan Matthews describes here, these proposals arguably do more to overhaul the status quo and limit government than those of any other major figure in either party.

Like other Republicans, Paul would repeal Obamacare, partially privatize Social Security, move Medicare to a " premium support" system for future retirees, and block-grant Medicaid and food stamps. But he's also proposed budget cuts of 20 percent or more to NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the FDA, and the EPA — and cuts of 60 percent or more to the National Science Foundation, State Department, and Interior Department, among many others. Plus he's proposed eliminating the Departments of Energy and Education entirely. "It's the most detailed expression of what a libertarian approach to budgeting would look like to date," Matthews writes.

For useful context, Senate Democrats have proposed keeping spending at 21.9 percent of GDP in 2023, and Paul Ryan has proposed cutting it to 19.1. Paul's most recent budget goes much further than Ryan's, and slashes spending to 16.4 percent of GDP that year, according to one estimate.

Stop listening to hawks on foreign policy — and stop being so quick to use our military abroad

As Zack Beauchamp writes, the "core idea" of Paul's foreign policy is that he "wants to scale down American commitments to foreign wars." Instead, Paul argues that when the US tries to intervene abroad, it frequently backfires. "When we have toppled secular dictators we have gotten chaos and the rise of radical Islam," he's said.

Paul is harshly critical of the Iraq War and says many of its supporters were "consistently wrong" in their predictions. He opposed President Obama's 2011 intervention in Libya, and now says it was an "utter disaster" that "created a jihadist wonderland" in the country. When Obama considered a 2013 intervention in Syria, Paul said, "I don’t see American interests on either side of the Syrian civil war." He's consistently opposed proposals to arm anti-Assad Syrian rebels, arguing that their weapons would just fall into the hands of jihadists.

But Paul doesn't oppose all military interventions — he did come out in favor of airstrikes against ISIS in 2014. However, he's been reluctant to support more extensive interventions from our military, arguing that the people there should do the fighting (he's recently called for arming the Kurds fighting against ISIS). "Intervention created this chaos," he's said.

Negotiate with Iran — don't start a war with them

Paul has consistently argued for negotiations with the Iranian regime to limit its nuclear program — saying this would be much better than going to war with them. "I’m a big fan of trying to exert and trying the diplomatic option as long as we can," he said in January. "Are you ready to send ground troops into Iran? Are you ready to bomb them? Are you ready to send in 100,000 troops?"

His rhetoric over the years has changed, as Dave Weigel runs down. Back in 2007, Paul said "it's not even viable" to say Iran is "a threat to Israel." Nowadays, though, his spokesman says that "any deal must make clear Iran cannot acquire a nuclear weapon, allows for full verification and is approved by Congress." In recent years, Paul has also supported bills to toughen sanctions on Iran. He has not yet taken a position on the nascent framework for a deal that the Obama administration has negotiated.

Reduce mass incarceration and wind down the war on drugs

Paul has said he wants to "do everything to end the war on drugs" — and his approach to do so focuses mainly on sentencing reform. He'd prefer lighter and less harsh penalties for drug possession and use. "There’s a racial outcome to the war on drugs. Three out of four people in prison for nonviolent drug offenses are black and brown ... [even though] white kids are using drugs at the same rate black kids are," Paul has said.

Paul does not support legalizing any drug that is currently illegal. However, he has argued that many drug policies should be set by the states rather than by the federal government. "I want things to be decided more at a local basis, with more compassion," he said in 2012. "I think for example we should tell young people, 'I'm not in favor of you smoking pot, but if you get caught smoking pot, I don't want to put you in jail for 20 years.'" He's also sponsored a bill to lift federal restrictions against medical marijuana.

Paul's advocacy on criminal justice reform goes further than just the war on drugs, though. He's proposed bills to let judges overrule some mandatory minimum sentences, to let nonviolent juvenile criminals expunge their sentences more easily, and to cut down on solitary confinement of minors. "Many of these young people could escape this trap if criminal justice were reformed, if records were expunged after time served, and if nonviolent crimes did not become a permanent blot preventing employment," Paul said last year. Read more from Dara Lind here.

Let nonviolent felons vote

Paul wants to restore voting rights to many nonviolent felons, and calls this "the biggest voting rights issue of our day." There "may be a million people who are being prevented from voting from having a previous felony conviction," he said in 2014. He's supported a bill that would restore voting rights in federal elections to felons convicted of either state or federal nonviolent crimes, once they've served their time. People on probation would be able to vote again after one year.

Reform NSA surveillance

Paul has been a frequent critic of the NSA's mass surveillance programs. "I believe this is a profound constitutional question: can a single warrant be granted against millions of Americans' cellphones, emails," Paul said in 2014. "The NSA monitors your every phone call. If you have a cellphone, you are under surveillance. I believe what you do on your cellphone is none of their damn business," he continued.

He supports ending the NSA's program for bulk collection of Americans' phone records, and even filed a class-action lawsuit against that program (it's currently on hold). But in 2014, Paul voted to block the major proposal to reform the agency from advancing in the Senate — he said it didn't go far enough, but civil liberties groups questioned why he voted to prevent the bill from even being debated.

Many campaign finance restrictions violate free speech rights

Paul agrees with recent Supreme Court decisions overturning campaign finance limits due to the First Amendment. "I think speech, whether you pay for it or not, is speech," Paul said in 2014. He has suggested that government contractors be prohibited from donating to candidates, because "that's where the biggest corruption of the system comes from" — but he hasn't released a specific proposal to do that.

Supports immigration reform in principle, but not yet any specific plan

Paul has said he'd support immigration reforms to legalize the status of unauthorized immigrants. "The 11 million, I think, are never going home, don’t need to be sent home, and I would incorporate them into our society by giving them work visas and making them taxpayers," Paul said this January.

But when it comes down to specifics, Paul has often taken positions more common on his party's right. He ended up opposing the 2013 bipartisan Senate reform bill, arguing that the bill didn't properly secure the border. He's also proposed ending Obama's executive actions giving deportation relief to DREAMers and other unauthorized immigrants. And back in 2011, Paul even proposed a constitutional amendment to end birthright citizenship. "Citizenship is a privilege, and only those who respect our immigration laws should be allowed to enjoy its benefits," he said in a press release.

On abortion: Human life should be protected from conception

When it comes to abortion, Paul is pro-life, and has sponsored a bill defining human life as beginning at conception and "entitled to legal protection from that point forward." He has said in a fundraising video for the National Pro-Life Alliance that with the Roe v. Wade decision, the Supreme Court "played God with innocent human life" and "condemned more than 56 million babies to painful deaths without trial, merely for the crime of being inconvenient." And he's predicted that his bill, the Life at Conception Act, could reverse Roe "without the need for a constitutional amendment."

In a 2013 interview with CNN, though, Paul sounded a somewhat different tone, saying his main goal to start a "healthy philosophic and moral discussion" over abortion. "I don’t think we’re ready yet, our society, maybe, to change any laws, but I think its worthwhile having the discussion," he said.

Against same-sex marriage, but leave it up to the states

As Dave Weigel writes, over the past several years Paul has consistently advocated for letting states define marriage for themselves, but has been clear that he personally opposes same-sex marriage. "I am an old-fashioned traditionalist. I believe in the historical definition of marriage," he said in 2013. And in January 2013, Paul argued that leaving the issue to the states was the best way supporters of "traditional marriage" could avoid losing "the battle for the whole country." But he's also broached the possibility of removing marriage from the tax code entirely, so the law can be more "neutral."

More school choice, no more Department of Education

Paul is a strong supporter of increasing school choice — both vouchers and charter schools — and argues that it will help minority children the most. "I’m talking about opening up all of the lines, so that kids can go to public, to private, wherever," Paul said in 2013. "It’s unfair to tell a poor inner-city kid that he can’t choose to go to a suburban school. Preferably, the more choices, the better."

Rand Paul wants to dramatically scale back the federal government's involvement in education policy, in favor of increasing state and local control. He opposes the Common Core State Standards, and has said they contain "anti-American propaganda" and would lead to "data-tracking of students from kindergarten on." Additionally, he's called the Department of Education "an overreach of constitutional authority by the federal government," and wants it to be eliminated. Read more on that from Libby Nelson here.

Many concerned about climate change are "alarmist"

In the past, Paul has voiced uncertainty over the science of climate change, questioning whether humans truly were causing it and whether the effects would be all that bad. He's also criticized the "religiosity" of environmental advocates, saying some of the rhetoric around the issue is "alarmist." This January, however, he voted for a Senate resolution saying climate change was happening and that humans were contributing to it.

But overall, Paul has consistently opposed the major proposals to limit carbon pollution, from cap-and-trade legislation to EPA regulation. "I don't want to shut down all forms of energy such that thousands and thousands of people lose their jobs," he said last year. He supports the Keystone XL Pipeline, and wants to open up more government land for oil and gas drilling.

Audit the Fed

Overall, Paul is suspicious of the Federal Reserve and its influence on monetary policy, and has sponsored legislation to audit the institution. Specifically, Paul's bill would let Congress weigh in on the Fed's monetary policy decisions — decisions the senator has frequently criticized in the past, warning of potential inflation. "Is there no limit? This is the question we should ask. Is there no limit to the amount of money that the Fed can create?" Paul said during a radio appearance in February.

Paul's brought the rhetoric out to the campaign trail this year. "Once upon a time, your dollar was as good as gold," Paul said in Iowa recently. "Do you know what it’s backed by now? Used-car loans, bad home loans, distressed assets, and derivatives." In an op-ed, he's said that the dollar has "lost 96 percent of its value" over the past 100 years.

Opposes gun control, argues that more guns deter crime

After the Sandy Hook school shootings in December 2012, Paul became a Senate leader in fighting Democrats' efforts for new gun control measures. He argued that universal background checks would present risks to privacy and "restrict the right of law-abiding citizens to buy guns at gun shows." And he argued that new limits on magazine sizes wouldn't stop mass shootings.

Instead, he said, what works is deterrence. "I'm a big believer that guns can be and are a deterrent to crime. And that those who want to ban guns don't quite understand the deterrence or the self-defense aspect of guns. So I would allow concealed carry in school by teachers and principals," Paul said in 2013.

No net neutrality

Paul opposes network neutrality, arguing that it's just government intervention into what should be determined by the free market. "I don't want to see regulation of the Internet. I think it's the wrong way to go about it," he told the Huffington Post in December. He added, "I don't like monopolies, but I also don't like monopolies where the government gives the monopoly."

Tax cuts for all and a new flatter tax code

Paul said in February that he will soon propose the "largest tax cut in American history," and that his plan will "cut everyone's taxes, from the richest to the poorest." In the past, he's supported a 17 percent flat tax that would replace the personal income tax. It would eliminate all tax deductions except for the mortgage interest deduction, and create a new and large standard deduction. Paul has also called for the repeal of estate taxes, as well as capital gains and dividend taxes.

Export-Import Bank is corporate welfare

Recently, the GOP has been split by some reformist conservatives who want to oppose "crony capitalism" — the idea that the government and business working together hurts competition. Paul supports the anti-cronyists' marquee initiative of abolishing the Export-Import Bank, and has called the bank "corporate welfare."

Supports free trade and TPP

Paul is a big supporter of free trade. "Part of the projection of American power is exporting American goods and culture," Paul has said. "Free trade and technology should be the greatest carrot of our statecraft." He's called on Obama to finish negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership more quickly, and said in December that he's "definitely for the trade pact." However, he's said he's undecided on whether to grant Obama fast-track authority — which is generally thought to be essential to the TPP's passage) — on it.

Cut taxes in Detroit to stimulate investment

Paul has proposed creating "economic freedom zones" to help Detroit's beleaguered economy. He'd cut personal and corporate income taxes there to 5 percent, freeze the capital gains tax, and lower the payroll tax to 2 percent. "The answer to poverty and unemployment is not another government stimulus. It is simply leaving more money in the hands of those who earn it," he said in 2013.