clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What Rand Paul didn't say this week reveals his real strategy

Rand Paul at his presidential announcement speech Tuesday
Rand Paul at his presidential announcement speech Tuesday
Luke Sharrett / Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Rand Paul is a politician with strongly held views on many topics. And in the first speech of his presidential campaign Tuesday, he made a deliberate choice to emphasize the issues on which he disagrees with his party's consensus, rather than to downplay them. A video he played even branded him as "a different kind of Republican."

The topics most conspicuously absent, instead, were ones where Paul actually agrees with the GOP's right — for instance, hot-button social issues like abortion. And this reveals quite a bit about how his campaign plans to build a coalition. They'll start out by appealing to fiscal conservatives, libertarians, and gettable moderates and to liberalism — and they'll hope to peel off some of the religious right later on.

Paul made sure his differences from his party were front and center

Paul spent the most time on economic issues — where his views are shared by many libertarians and conservatives. He warned of "big government and debt." He said the government should "just spend what comes in" and called for a constitutional balanced budget amendment. And he advocated tax cuts as a way to revitalize American manufacturing and cities like Detroit. He also made sure to criticize both parties, pointing out that "big government and debt doubled under a Republican administration."

When he tackled foreign policy, Paul unmistakably emphasized different themes than other GOP contenders. "Our goal always should be and always is peace, not war," he said. He went after nation-building, saying, "Let's quit building bridges in foreign countries and use that money to build some bridges here at home." And he pledged to end the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone records on his first day as president.

Paul didn't spend as much time on his support of criminal justice reform — but his one shout-out to it was quite memorable. "I see an America where criminal justice is applied equally and any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed," he said.

By contrast, the issue of abortion or even the more generic "life" never came up. 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." In the past, 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."

Indeed, though Paul had a pastor speak before he began, references to God or Christianity were almost entirely absent from his own speech. Near the end of his address, he mentioned that the IRS shouldn't harass Americans "for their political or religious beliefs," and then said he was announcing his candidacy with "God's help." But that was it.

It was a marked contrast from Ted Cruz, who gave his announcement speech at Liberty University, founded by the late evangelical leader Jerry Falwell. Cruz told his audience to "imagine a federal government that works to defend the sanctity of human life and to uphold the sacrament of marriage," and mentioned the word "God" nine times.

Paul is trying to win libertarians now. But he won't forget about the religious right.

Why the omissions? Paul seems to think winning support and enthusiasm from young voters and libertarians is his highest priority right now. He wants to get the support from them he needs to fund his campaign and build a team of volunteers.

Yet he also knows that many of these voters (and, perhaps more important, donors) are suspicious of the GOP on cultural issues. And he knows that running as a generic Republican or as a candidate of the religious right will turn off those voters. In other words, he's trying to reach out to people who wouldn't be so inclined support ordinary Republicans, and bring them into the fold.

But we shouldn't expect Paul to give up wooing the religious right entirely. He hasn't changed his positions on issues like abortion or same-sex marriage — he's just not talking about them much right now. He knows quite well that the last two GOP winners of the Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, were favorites of the Christian right.

And over his Senate career, Paul has frequently appeared on programs with socially conservative interviewers like David BrodyGlenn Beck, and Bryan Fischer. Unsurprisingly, he stresses social issues far more often here. For instance, he told Fischer in 2013 that letting states, not the federal government, define marriage was the best way to protect "traditional marriage," which was currently under attack. "If the urban areas are able to dictate, for the rest of the country, what our definition of marriage is, I'm really concerned about that," Paul said.

That's not a view Paul decided to broadcast in his announcement speech. For now, he's trying to set himself apart from the field as "a different kind of Republican." But as the Iowa caucuses grow closer, we might start hearing some more about the issues where he's not so different.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.