Sunday, September 29, 2013

Rand Paul bolts the herd, maybe

DID YOU see Rand Paul’s ad for Polo Ralph Lauren, in the September Vogue magazine? Or was it Brooks Brothers? Or was it an ad at all? The Kentucky Republican senator was tricked out in elite casual finery for this Adirondack-chairs-in-summer-sunshine photo, an image that accompanied a serious piece of reporting about Paul and his prospects for the presidency in 2016. But while it wasn’t an ad for a product, that photo, with its Kennedyesque echoes of a Simpler Time, may well be Rand Paul’s best advertisement for himself.

Paul’s to-the-manor-born optics dovetail with those of the Republican identity, but in recent statements about major domestic issues, in what he would claim to be an evolution, Paul has been tacking to the center, carving out some philosophical space between himself and other Republicans, and certainly between himself and anyone else entertaining the idea of a run for the presidential roses.

Take what happened late last week. Paul, who has historically allied himself with anti-Obamacare stalwarts Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, put some distance between himself and the Tea Party regulars opposing the Affordable Care Act, after Cruz’s embarrassing soliloquy on the Senate floor. Part of Paul’s response was no less than a concession that Obamacare would withstand any challenge from the GOP.

“I'm not sure it's my job to give them advice,” Paul told reporters, including two from The Huffington Post, on Friday. “On party lines, Obamacare will continue. Americans are going to have to judge whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing.” It was a bid for practicality and centrism by default; by dismissing the latest intractable position taken by Cruz and Paul’s fellow Republicans in both chambers, Paul makes a bid to be seen as the adult in the room by doing nothing more than walking away from Cruz’s intransigence.

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Another example: On Sept. 18, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, Paul took an uncommonly progressive stand on an issue that, while hardly on the action-item radar of most of Congress, was startling in its basis in common sense:

“If I told you that one out of three African-American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago. Yet today, a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs has disproportionately affected young black males.

“The ACLU reports that blacks are four to five times more likely to be convicted for drug possession although surveys indicate that blacks and whites use drugs at similar rates. The majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, but three-fourths of all people in prison for drug offenses are African American or Latino.

“Why are the arrest rates so lopsided? Because it is easier to go into urban areas and make arrests than suburban areas.

“Arrest statistics matter when applying for federal grants. It doesn't take much imagination to understand that it's easier to round up, arrest and convict poor kids than it is to convict rich kids.

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TODAY, I'M HERE to ask you to create a safety valve for all federal mandatory minimums. Mandatory sentencing automatically imposes a minimum number of years in prison for specific crimes - usually related to drugs. ...

“Since mandatory sentencing began, America's prison population has quadrupled, to 2.4 million. America now jails a higher percentage of its citizens than any other country, at the staggering cost of $80 billion a year.

“Recently, Chairman [Patrick] Leahy and I introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act. The legislation is short and simple. It amends current law to provide ‘authority to impose a sentence below a statutory mandatory minimum.’

“Mandatory minimum sentencing has done little to address the very real problem of drug abuse while also doing great damage by destroying so many lives. I'm here today to ask you to let judges start doing their jobs. I'm here to ask that we begin the end of mandatory minimum sentencing.”

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On MSNBC’s “The Last Word,” Lawrence O’Donnell called it “the politically bravest thing said in Washington today.” Given the overall climate on Capitol Hill — one of a disinclination for brandishing philosophical courage — that sets a pretty low bar. But O’Donnell said it by way of putting in context Paul’s chances for the White House in 2016.

In O’Donnell’s assessment, Paul’s comments in committee Wednesday will be utterly corrosive to efforts to build the conservative base Paul would presumably need to win the nomination; Paul’s comments amount to rank apostasy, a violation of the prime directives of the Republican Party: Thou Shalt Be Loyal. Thou Shalt Hew to the Party Line.

But you can look at it through a completely different lens — or the proverbial opposite end of the telescope — and see why Paul’s cri de Coeur matters. The senator’s thoroughly progressive stand on this issue can be seen as what could be the first serious Republican move toward the political center by a credible prospect for the White House in 2016. And with good reason.

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THE REPUBLICAN Party had its head and various other body parts handed to it in 2012. With the standard-bearer of multimillionaire political ventriloquist’s dummy and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the GOP went down to a crushing defeat.

One consequence of that wipeout was that the Republicans found themselves in the unlikely position, for the second time in as many federal election cycles, of walking in the wilderness and contemplating the error of their ways.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal grasped the importance of that need for self-awareness. In a Nov. 12 interview with Politico, he had a message for his fellow Republicans: “Stop being the stupid party.”

“We’ve got to make sure that we are not the party of big business, big banks, big Wall Street bailouts, big corporate loopholes, big anything,” said Jindal, who’s shortlisted as a 2016 White House hopeful. “We cannot be, we must not be, the party that simply protects the rich so they get to keep their toys. ...

“We’ve also had enough of this dumbed-down conservatism,” he said. “We need to stop being simplistic, we need to trust the intelligence of the American people and we need to stop insulting the intelligence of the voters. Simply being the anti-Obama party didn’t work. You can’t beat something with nothing. The reality is we have to be a party of solutions and not just bumper-sticker slogans but real detailed policy solutions.”

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You can’t read Rand Paul’s testimony without thinking that he probably read Jindal’s interview from last year. With his unexpectedly refreshing position on mandatory minimums vis-à-vis African Americans, Paul has dared to take a shot at getting people to think about the GOP as “a party of solutions.”

And implicit in what he said, Paul clearly buys into the idea that Republican outreach to black voters is possible — not just possible but necessary — and that conceding the black vote to the Democrats needn’t be a standing operational rule for the GOP anymore.

With Paul taking point on this issue, of crucial importance to African Americans generally and young African Americans in particular, other Republican presidential prospects may need to be just as emphatic about where they stand on this issue in particular, and the lives of black and minority Americans in general.

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THEN THERE was his recent 13-hour filibuster against the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director, a stand that won Paul praise from conservatives and liberals alike. And Paul’s March 2013 speech on immigration reform, before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, showed the senator staking out a pragmatic and politically courageous position on that topic as central to the nation’s future as anything else.

“The Republican Party must embrace more legal immigration,” he said. “Unfortunately, like many of the major debates in Washington, immigration has become a stalemate-where both sides are imprisoned by their own rhetoric or attachment to sacred cows that prevent the possibility of a balanced solution.

“Immigration reform will not occur until Conservative Republicans, like myself, become part of the solution. I am here today to begin that conversation.

“Let’s start that conversation by acknowledging we aren’t going to deport 12 million illegal immigrants. If you wish to work, if you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you.”

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It’s such breaks with conservative orthodoxy and rhetoric that make the idea of a Rand Paul campaign so fascinating, and frightening, for the GOP. For them, a Paul campaign would be a nerve-wracking if necessary break with the Republican past. The power of even the idea of a Rand Paul presidential bid in 2016 is it would force the GOP even deeper into the uncharted territory of its own identity. The possibility of something truly new emerging — some bold, pragmatic, populist reimagining of the Republican ethos — would be, for party elders, nothing less than terrifying.

Jason Horowitz writes in Vogue: “The notion of President Rand Paul would once have been absurd. Three years ago, he was a Kentucky ophthalmologist mounting an outsider campaign for Senate, still very much in the shadow of his father. But the younger Paul rode a Tea Party wave to Washington, and quickly became the movement’s most intriguing and charismatic spokes­person — an ambassador for libertarian values who takes obvious relish in skewering critics, regardless of their political affiliation.

“While his father was content to remain a dissenting voice from the margins — or from one end of countless presidential-debate stages — Rand clearly wants to win. His stunningly swift rise in the GOP also amounts to one of the most fascinating tightrope walks in national politics. On the one side is his raucous Tea Party base. On the other is his courting of donors, establishment Republicans, and traditional Democratic constituencies.”

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ONE OF THE things that gives Paul’s political persona such intrigue is his identification as a libertarian (like his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul). Regardless of its deep and noble roots during the Age of Enlightenment, libertarianism has long been viewed by Americans as an odd duck, a philosophy that focuses on the importance of personal liberty in a free-wheeling way, happily sampling a little of everything at the buffet of America’s two-party political system — even as some of its central tenets (a relative absence of government involvement in economic matters, for example) dovetail nicely with the anti-regulatory posture of the modern GOP.

In his previous presidential campaigns, Ron Paul confused and infuriated Democrats and his fellow Republicans by taking positions that kicked some of the enduring geopolitical pieties to the curb. More than once, for example, he loudly called for an end to U.S. military alliances, as economically impractical as it is geopolitically dumb.

Rand Paul differs from that aspect of libertarian thinking, saying that he supports permanent foreign U.S. military bases. Color him conservative (maybe even a hawk). But he backed the Supreme Court’s decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act — a victory for LGBT Americans in particular and liberals in general. OK, so now we color him ... progressive?

At a February speech at the Heritage Foundation, maybe as a way of clarifying his varied perspectives, Paul tried to connect his own foreign-policy principles with those of Ronald Reagan, including his view of Reagan as pragmatist. “I see the world as it is. I am a realist, not a neoconservative, nor an isolationist,” he said.

William Kristol ain’t havin’ it. The Weekly Standard editor went off on Paul on “Fox News Sunday” back in March. “If Rand Paul wants to run to the left of the Obama administration, he’s free to try that in the Republican primary, and maybe there is more support for that than I think, but I’m pretty doubtful that there really is.”

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Kristol needn't worry. Some of Paul’s positions suggest he’s anything but progressive. In May 2010, he was asked about his position suggesting that Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — the part about “injunctive action” that outlaws discrimination by private business owners of patrons based on race — conflicted with his libertarian demarcation of public and private entities. Paul says public institutions should absolutely be barred from such discrimination. But how about private businesses — lunch counters, restaurants, hotels, gas stations, stores?

Paul was asked by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow: “Do you think that a private business has the right to say, ‘we don't serve black people?’ ”

“Yes. I'm not in favor of any discrimination of any form,” Paul said. “I don't want to be associated with those people, but I also don't want to limit their speech in any way in the sense that we tolerate boorish and uncivilized behavior, because that's one of the things freedom requires.”

In an earlier NPR interview, he was asked whether the Civil Rights Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act, which protects the handicapped against discrimination in hiring and access to services, were indicators of federal overreach.

"Right,” he said. “I think a lot of things could be handled locally.”

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PAUL’S MANDATORY-minimum testimony ripped the script entirely. If only he could follow through with a similarly enlightened position on abortion: Paul opposes Roe v. Wade, and as of May 2010 was equally against abortion even in the case of rape or incest.

Thus, Rand Paul swings back and forth, from a populist perspective to a more traditional allegiance to conservative positions and principles. This makes it a challenge to find a throughline for how he’d act on his principles. That makes it both harder to Republican voters to back him without squinting, and potentially easier for other voters to at least consider him — precisely because his positions don’t necessarily conform with the party line.

For better or worse, the GOP knows about candidates like that, all too damn well. They had just such a chameleon as their standard-bearer in 2012.

His name was Mitt Romney.

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It’s impossible to now right now if Paul’s call for mandatory-minimum overhaul, his stand on domestic drones and immigration reform, and his distance from his party’s anti-Obamacare theatrics are the first principled moves in the direction of political centrism, or just brief, spasmodic bolts from the herd.

Given the turmoil that reigns within the GOP ranks, if he runs, Paul can expect an intraparty challenge that will certainly use his statements at the Judiciary Committee hearing to question his conservative bona fides. We can see the ads now: “Rand Paul relies on the ACLU to help define what he stands for. The ACLU? No thanks Rand, America’s ready for a real conservative ... [Add candidate’s name here]

Regardless, there’s a lot to indicate that these departures aren’t one-offs for Rand Paul, but just maybe the start of a pivot towards achieving a Republican identity that looks like more of America than the Republicans have been comfortable with. As the inevitable visitations to Iowa and New Hampshire get started, if they haven’t already, we’ll see how the idea of such a transformation is received by the Pantone Red party faithful. For this Paul, the road to Damascus runs though Derry and Des Moines.

And after his recent apostate actions, it’s yet to be seen how seriously Paul will be taken by the broader Republican Party, not just the Tea Party stalwarts who claim him as their own. The wider GOP’s reception for this and other maverick thinking in its ranks — and Paul’s willingness to follow through on contrarian positions and keep an open mind about others — may indicate how seriously the Republican Party is taken by the American people.

Image credits: Rand Paul and son: Jonathan Becker for Vogue. Cruz: still from Senate TV. Rand Paul testifies: Still from C-SPAN video. Jindal: Sean Gardner/Reuters. Ron Paul: Fox News. Detail from a questionnaire as completed by Rand Paul in May 2010.

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