At one point, Rand Paul was well positioned to be the “candidate of a new generation.” His foreign policy and civil rights positions, for example, could unite constituencies otherwise driven apart by opportunistic partisan political operations. Instead, he appears to be hedging his positions to gain approval from Republican base voters and pandering to ideological purists.
What politicos have misunderstood—and apparently Paul has, too—is that the young voters who were attracted to the policies of his father, Ron Paul, had their support rooted in a confidence that Ron Paul said what he truly believed.
Ron Paul was himself. Authentic. And what he had to say was guided by his own perception of importance—not what the polls or the media told him was important.
Did this authenticity win Ron Paul a presidential election? No.
But it did lead directly to Rand Paul's election to the United States Senate.
Rand Paul, however, has lost the mantle of authenticity so critical to his father's appeal.
Why write about Rand Paul?
For those of us who conducted the Draft Rand Paul for Senate campaign in 2010 from right here in San Diego, Rand's unraveling is both a disappointment and an important life lesson.
Those of us who came together to start that campaign had many different viewpoints and ideologies. What we had in common was a deep concern for civil rights and a fear that the power of government, and the big businesses that are in bed with it, were crushing freedom and opportunity.
In short, we shared an outlook more than we shared a philosophical ideology. And we were not drawn to Ron Paul because we believed that a particular political philosophy would save our country.
Rather, we were concerned about the future and were drawn to the “Ron Paul Revolution” because he appeared to be the only national candidate that spoke candidly, intellectually, and directly about the realities we faced in America.
Sure, other politicians had something to say. But what they said was framed to fit within the shallow, two-sided debate that surrounds the national discourse. What all other candidates said seemed preprogrammed by pollsters and political consultants to win the debate set by the two-sided national narrative.
I will never know whether Rand Paul really understood the diversity of the young people who drove the “revolution” that culminated in his election to the U.S. Senate. But from filibustering our mass surveillance programs to leading the charge for criminal justice reforms, the beginning of his career as a senator seemed to imply that he did. Even in the early stages of Rand Paul's presidential campaign, he spent time speaking to, and about, constituencies that Republicans have long ignored.
But as the pressure has mounted and other candidates have flexed their “I'm the most Republican” credentials, Rand Paul's rhetoric appears to be directed at the same old crowded gutter already occupied by fellow Republicans pandering to a narrow base.
It's hard to put a finger on what happened between the Ron Paul revolution that was and the Rand Paul Republican presidential candidate that is.
We've all heard the expression, “it's not what you say; it's how you say it.”
So when Sen. Paul says things like, “the tea party erupted over dissatisfaction with false conservatives,” he revealed more than his perspective (how the tea party started) but he also reveals who his audience is—the people who don't believe the Republican Party is conservative enough.
In 2009, when I stopped identifying myself as a tea partier, I wrote:
“Slowly, I've lost some of my unrealistic idealism. As I pull back the blinders, I try to look at the tea party from the eyes of an outsider, the average American. What I see is a bunch of people reciting partisan political sermons, coddling fears and perpetuating a superficial battle between ‘left' and ‘right'; drowning the well-intentioned idealists that remain.”
The more Rand Paul's campaign continues, I can't help but feel like he is perpetuating a left-versus-right narrative that we should all reject. Sure, he brings his own ideological narrative to the Republican primary, but that's not the point.
When you start reframing what you say to pander to a small segment of voters, you lose your authenticity. And when there are 15 other candidates vying for that same partisan base, you do things like take a chainsaw to the tax code to try and get attention. Or act like defunding Planned Parenthood should be at the top of the president's priority list.
For those of us once hopeful that Rand Paul would crack through the Republican orthodoxy of partisan politics, our takeaway today is that our time is better spent working on more fundamental issues like nonpartisan voting rights, because true reform requires systemic change.
Today, we have an election system that says Republican and Democratic Party voters are more important than everyone else. That's why the presidential candidates pander to them.
As a self-described champion of individual liberty, Rand Paul should be the first person to recognize that government is about representing individual people, and not the Republican Party.
Interestingly, Rand Paul is in a tough position today because Kentucky law does not allow a person to run for President and Senate at the same time. So, in the interest of his personal pursuit, he has pushed for Kentucky to move from a binding primary to a non-binding caucus system, to circumvent the rules. In doing so, he is advocating for a voting process that transfers power from individual voters to activists within a political party.
He's also said, “We think there is going to be a constitutional argument that the states all have to have the same rules for a federal election.” Constitutionally, states have wide latitude under Article II to design the manner in which elections are conducted. So, coming from a guy who has championed individual rights, state rights, and is a self-described champion of the constitution, his actions seem more than self-serving, but self-defeating.
As I concluded in my 2009 article:
“As the battle rages, I have more faith than ever that an independent revolution will come. When the absurdity of our political process rises to the point where tea bags become a right-wing rally cry and the left still manages to drop in the polls, there is a growing opportunity for the increasingly disenchanted to drive a stake right down the middle.”
Rand Paul was on the crest of a wave he either did not understand or did not have the courage to ride.
As a result, the increasingly disenchanted are likely to look elsewhere.