The Kentucky senator's libertarian streak helps him appeal to young people and to his father's old political base. But is it too much for the Republican establishment?
Rand Paul is the most libertarian candidate in the Republican field
Rand Paul is the heir to the political machine built by his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX). While the younger Paul has long been interested in politics and had worked on his father's campaigns, his 2010 run for Senate from Kentucky was his first effort as a candidate for public office. With his father now retired from public life, the younger Paul has become the standard-bearer for the family's distinctively libertarian brand of politics.
Rand has proven to be more pragmatic than his father, making strategic compromises with Republican orthodoxy that could make him more palatable as an eventual Republican candidate. Rand has softened Ron's strict non-interventionism and focused less on his father's signature issue, monetary policy.
On economic policy, Paul is an orthodox conservative. He favors deregulation, and school choice. He supports a 17 percent flat tax and huge cuts to spending on health care, education, housing, and more. He wants to privatize Medicare and all but zero-out foreign aid.
Yet the Senator from Kentucky has staked out a series of libertarian positions that makes him stand out from the rest of the Republican field. He is a strong opponent of mass domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency. He has also laid out an ambitious agenda to de-escalate the war on drugs, reduce mass incarceration, and re-integrate criminals into society after they've served their time.
And while Paul's foreign policy views have shifted somewhat over time, there continues to be big disagreements between Paul's dovish views and the more hawkish views that have dominated the Republican Party since George W. Bush was in the White House. For example, while many other Republicans have criticized President Obama for being too soft on Iran, Paul has supported Obama's efforts to reach a negotiated settlement.
Some observers believe that these unorthodox views put a ceiling on Paul's potential support in the Republican primary electorate. In 2012 Paul's father had a well-organized and well-funded campaign and a small army of volunteers. Yet he rarely earned more than 25 percent of the vote in state primaries, and wound up finishing fourth in the popular vote.
The younger Paul will need to significantly broaden his appeal to capture the Republican nomination. So far, there isn't a lot of evidence that he's accomplished that. Polls in May 2015 show him with support from around 10 percent of GOP primary voters, essentially the same poll performance as his father four years earlier. That puts him in fourth place behind Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio.
Paul has made NSA surveillance a centerpiece of his campaign
On May 20, 2015, Rand Paul took the floor of the Senate and spoke for more than 10 hours in an effort to stall legislation to renew a controversial provision of the Patriot Act. That provision, known as Section 215, has been invoked by the National Security Agency to justify mass collection of Americans' telephone calling records. It expired on May 31.
This has been a long-standing cause for Paul. He co-sponsored ambitious NSA reform legislation in 2013, and in 2014 he filed a class-action lawsuit against NSA surveillance. He has opposed the USA Freedom Act, NSA reform legislation passed by the House in May, because it doesn't go far enough to rein in the spy agency.
Public controversy over the NSA has focused on a program that collects Americans' telephone records in bulk, but Paul wants to go beyond ending that program. He has pointed out that there are other NSA programs that collect Americans' private communications without a warrant, such as the PRISM program that allows the NSA to collect information from online accounts.
Opposition to NSA spying is sometimes associated with the political left, but especially since the 2013 revelations of Edward Snowden, skepticism about NSA excesses has become a bipartisan view. Sen. Mike Lee, a Tea Party Republican from Utah, supported Paul during his May 2015 filibuster, and prominent House Republicans such as James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the author of the Patriot Act, have criticized NSA spying.
Rand Paul wants to revolutionize Republican foreign policy
Unlike the rest of the likely GOP presidential field, Paul is a true believer in scaling down America's involvement in conflicts around the world. That pits him against the mainstream hawks in the Republican Party whose ideas are likely to dominate the campaign. Paul hopes to inject his ideas into the debate and shift priorities his party has held for decades. But his deep commitment to these non-interventionist views could be one of his biggest liabilities in the primary.
For example, Paul supports nuclear negotiations with Iran (though he's expressed some skepticism about the current framework deal). He's tacitly endorsed the Obama approach to Russia and Ukraine. He's blasted both the Afghanistan surge and the Libya intervention. Today, he opposes arming the Syrian rebels to fight ISIS or Bashar al-Assad.
"After the tragedies of Iraq and Libya, Americans are right to expect more from their country when we go to war," Paul said in an October speech widely seen as an outline of his 2016 foreign policy platform.
If Paul wins the primary — let alone the presidency — then the GOP and its elected officials will have to line up behind him. That will mean defending his foreign policy against Democrats, who will likely blast Paul from an interventionist point of view.
But there's a major problem with this strategy: it's at odds with the Republican Party. Polls show that, since the ISIS crisis began in June 2014, Republicans have gotten more hawkish. The dominant GOP critique of Obama is that he's doing too little to deal with ISIS and other global crises, like Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Paul is poorly positioned to tap into this sentiment.
Perhaps more importantly, Paul's at odds with the prevailing wisdom among Republican elites. There's a lot of evidence that support from party activists, donors, and elected officials plays a critical role in determining the eventual presidential nominee — and the fact that the Republican leadership cadre is far more hawkish than Rand puts him at an immediate disadvantage in this contest. Indeed, it seems like Paul's troubles in finding a megadonor to back him are related to his foriegn policy stances: cash dispensers like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, for whom foreign policy is a top priority, are off the table for Paul.
This all goes to show that remaking an entire party's policy worldview is hard work. Paul's ambitions on foreign policy are extraordinary — and extraordinarily hard to pull off.
Rand Paul is serious about criminal justice reform
Rand Paul stands out from the rest of the Republican field for his persistent interest in reforming the criminal justice system, in particular his interest in ending mass incarceration.
He's pushed bills in the Senate, spoken to diverse audiences, and stumped on the issue. Together, the efforts are part of Paul's aspiration to broaden the Republican Party's tent. Whether he can is an open question, especially given some missteps he's made on race, including over his thoughts on the Civil Rights Act.
In the Senate, Paul has built a series of partnerships with Democratic politicians on the issue, and introduced a bevy of bipartisan legislation with them:
- The Justice Safety Valve Act with Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT), which lets federal judges overrule mandatory minimum sentences on a case-by-case basis
- The Redeem Act with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), which would enable both juveniles and adults to expunge or seal nonviolent criminal records, and would let low-level drug offenders receive food stamps and welfare benefits
- The Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act with Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), which would restore federal voting rights for nonviolent ex-offenders
- The Carers Act with Sens. Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), which would reschedule marijuana so as to legalize its use for medical purposes
- The Fair Act with Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), which would limit the police's ability to seize assets from criminal suspects before they're convicted
He's also backed a number of bipartisan initiatives led by other legislators, such as Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Dick Durbin's (D-IL) Smarter Sentencing Act, which would slash sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.
Paul is also passionate about the issue — and particularly about racial disparities in the justice system — on the stump. At his presidential campaign announcement, he declared that in his vision for America, "any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed." (That's basically every law, but the sentiment he meant to express was clear).
He's also made a point of speaking to predominantly black audiences, including two trips to Howard University, a speech on criminal justice at the historically black Bowie State University in Maryland, and an appearance at the National Urban League Conference in Cincinnati last year.
Paul's record on race is controversial. He attracted huge amounts of criticism during his 2010 Senate run for saying in an interview with a newspaper editorial board that he thought the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was wrong to ban discrimination by private businesses in addition to government discrimination. He tried to defuse that controversy at his first Howard appearance in 2013, but wound up denying (falsely) that he'd ever questioned the wisdom of the act, sparking yet more criticism. He also suffers by association to his father, who published newsletters in the late '80s and early '90s containing statements like "order was only restored in LA when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks" and "we are constantly told that it is evil to be afraid of black men, [but] it is hardly irrational" and "I've laid bare the coming race war in our big cities."
Rand's focus on criminal justice is, among other things, a way to reject his and his father's past statements on race, and adds to his appeal as a candidate capable of reaching black voters and younger voters energized by the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore.
Rand Paul's budget contains huge cuts
Paul is the only presidential candidate to have crafted actual federal budget proposals, releasing ones for fiscal years 2012, 2013, and 2014 in his first three years in the Senate. The budgets include cost-costing proposals that are familiar from Paul Ryan's budget and other establishment Republican proposals, such as repealing Obamacare, privatizing Medicare, and block-granting Medicaid and food stamps.
But Paul goes much further than Ryan does. According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Paul's FY2014 budget would reduce spending to 16.4 percent of GDP by 2023. By contrast, Paul Ryan's budget would reduce spending to 19.1 percent of GDP, and Senate Democrats' budget would keep it at 21.9 percent. The gap between Paul's budget and Ryan's is nearly as big as the gap between Ryan's and Democrats'.
So how does Paul do it? There are too many cuts to list, but the big differences from other slash-heavy Republican proposals in the budgets include:
- Elimination or near-elimination of the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, programs which help reduce poverty among working families.
- A "draw-down and restructuring of the Department of Defense."
- Elimination or near-elimination of all foreign aid spending; the FY2012 budget explicitly eliminates all aid to Israel.
- Elimination of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, including Section 8 housing vouchers for poor families.
- Elimination of all programs in the Department of Education, including all K-12 funding, with the exception of Pell Grants, which are cut but not eliminated.
- Elimination of the Department of Energy, except for its nuclear energy programs which are given to the Department of Defense
- A 20 percent cut to the National Institutes of Health (which the budgets attack as a subsidy for the pharmaceutical industry).
- A 20 percent cut to the Food and Drug Administration (the budgets condemn its "intrusion into the nation’s food supply").
- A 30 percent cut to the National Parks ("returning these public lands back to the states and or the private sector would allow an increase in quality, safety and a reduction in government spending each year")
- Cuts of over 50 percent to the National Science Foundation (62 percent cut), State Department (71 percent), and Interior Department (78 percent) budgets.
The budgets also outline Paul's vision on taxes. The two most recent ones call for a flat tax, with the FY2013 budget specifying the rate (17 percent) and deduction size ($32,320 for married couples filing jointly, plus $6,530 per dependent). He partially justifies this proposal by arguing it'll boost growth, a traditional supply-sider argument common among Republican contenders.
But his FY2014 budget also suggests that progressive taxation is actually unconstitutional. "The 16th Amendment it makes it quite clear that its intent is to allow the federal government to collect taxes to fund operations and services provided by the federal government," the budget reads. "The amendment does not suggest, however, that the government shall collect taxes, distribute welfare, redistribute wealth, and distort the allocation of resources — yet this is exactly what our tax code does."
The current tax code does this, according to the budget, through tax breaks like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, as well as through its progressive structure ("The government also distorts resource allocation by relying on a minority of taxpayers to fund the activities of the federal government.")
These objections raise the question of why Paul allows for a standard deduction, which serves to make a flat tax mildly progressive. In the FY2013 budget, he writes that progressivity makes the flat tax "consistent with the progressive ideology implemented today"; it's unclear whether he thinks this is actively desirable, or a necessary compromise.
Rand Paul is a critic of the Federal Reserve and easy money
Monetary policy and the Federal Reserve don't usually come up a lot in presidential elections, but they were a key focus of the 2008 and 2012 campaigns of Rand Paul's father, Ron Paul. The elder Paul was appalled by Richard Nixon's 1971 decision to take the US off the gold standard, and he has worked ever since to restore the dollar's link to gold. Remarkably, Ron Paul was able to turn monetary policy reform into a populist cause, to the point that crowds chanted "end the Fed" at his campaign events.
Rhetorically, Rand Paul has carried his father's anti-Fed banner. Yet while Ron Paul was a forthright supporter of abolishing the Fed and putting the United States on a gold standard, Rand hasn't articulated a clear vision for monetary policy.
Paul's campaign site promises to audit the Fed, a reference to a longtime proposal of his father. Yet this proposal wouldn't quite do what it sounds like. The Fed is already subject to multiple audits, both by federal watchdog agencies and by private auditors. But these audits have a narrow carve-out for the Fed's conduct of monetary policy, which is intended to preserve the central bank's independence. Paul's proposal is more about opening up the monetary policy process for outsiders to observe and influence than about auditing the institution as a whole.
Rand himself acknowledges that his "audit the Fed" legislation isn't just about greater transparency: "Congress created the Fed over 100 years ago but in the years since has abdicated too much power to it. This bill is the first step in reclaiming their Constitutional power."
Most mainstream economists believe the Fed's aggressive expansion of the money supply helped cushion the economy in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, preventing a deeper depression. (Some even believe the Fed didn't do enough.) But Rand Paul doesn't agree. In his view, excessive money creation distorts economic activity and creates a risk of future inflation.
The big question is how aggressively the younger Paul would follow his father's views if he won the White House. The president's primary power over monetary policy comes from his ability to appoint the chair and other members of the Fed's board of governors. Critics say that if he appoints economists who share his father's unorthodox view on monetary policy, they could transform the next economic downturn into a deep depression.
Rand Paul has been cagey about whether he'd really appoint people with that mindset. When asked to name his ideal Fed chairman, he named two dead libertarian economists — Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Needless to say, dead men can't run the Fed, and Friedman's legacy is heavily contested. So while it's a reasonable guess that Paul would pursue the controversial policies favored by his father, we don't really know.