Cedar Rapids, Iowa — “We interrupt our lives sometimes to try to do something for the country,” Rand Paul tells a group of Iowa Republicans gathered in the kitchen of a Cedar Rapids home. “I interrupted my life as a physician to try and help the country.”
The 2016 presidential race will begin, of course, in Iowa, and it may be starting now.
Paul is in Cedar Rapids to deliver the keynote address at the Iowa Republican party’s annual Lincoln Day dinner, but he also is using the visit to introduce himself to people in the first state to hold caucuses in the presidential race. He is lunching behind closed doors with a small group of Evangelical pastors, dropping by a private home for an afternoon coffee, and squeezing in an event at a local community center — the Johnson County Republicans’ “Breakfast of Champions” — before heading out of town.
It is not a coincidence that, in the next two months, he will visit New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.
The broad outlines of a stump speech — part comedy, part indignation — are evident. Pacing across the stage during his keynote address, he mocks the absurd bureaucracy spawned by the president’s health-care bill. “We have 72 codes for injuries just from birds,” he says incredulously, “and nine new codes for injuries from the macaw.” Paul, an ophthalmologist, tells the crowd, “I’ve asked physicians across the country, have you ever seen an injury sustained from a macaw?”
He reserves his ire for Hillary Clinton, whose failure to respond to diplomats’ repeated requests for increased security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi constitutes a “dereliction of duty” that “should preclude her from holding higher office.”
“First question for Hillary Clinton: Where the hell were the Marines?” he asks, referring to the security provided to the compound prior to last September’s attack. The crowd rises to its feet, offering whoops, cheers, and enthusiastic whistles of support. Earlier in the day, Paul compared the Benghazi attack to the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, in which 18 American soldiers were killed at the hands of Somali militiamen. Before and during the Benghazi incident, Paul says, Clinton displayed a “tragic lack of leadership, similar to what Les Aspin did in Mogadishu under Bill Clinton.” In the months before the showdown on the streets of Mogadishu, then–secretary of defense Les Aspin denied the military’s request for armored reinforcements in Somalia. He resigned months later.
Paul offers inspiration, too. Exiting the stage Friday night, he tells the crowd, “We need the passion of Patrick Henry, ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’” Working in a more contemporary reference but striking the same idealistic note, he adds, “We also need the passion of what young people who are in love have,” and breaks into an impromptu recitation of the Proclaimers’ song “500 Miles.” “I love this song. It’s like, ‘I will walk 500 miles, and I will walk 500 more, just to be the man who walked 500 miles to fall down at your door.’”
From the kitchen table to the banquet hall to the community-center basement here in Cedar Rapids, Paul is engaging in the retail politics that give birth to presidential campaigns in early primary states. But he also has a higher vision of politics and of his role in the GOP.
“Politics is always the art of fusion, bringing people together who don’t agree on every issue and trying to find some common theme,” he tells reporters, explaining the need for the GOP to shore up its base while opening its arms to new voters.
Paul himself is practicing that art, attempting to fuse the libertarian and the socially conservative strands of the Republican party. As a lawmaker, he embodies the tension between them, a tension that has existed since the birth of the modern conservative movement. A tea-party favorite, he is a leader of the GOP’s libertarian wing, having criticized big-bank bailouts; created a scene in a Nashville airport after refusing a pat-down by Transportation Security Administration officials; and sponsored a bill to gut the TSA entirely. At the same time, he calls himself as a born-again Christian and opposes both abortion and gay marriage.
As he contemplates a national political campaign — he says he won’t make a decision about a presidential bid until next year — it is clear that he has learned the lessons of his father, a failed three-time presidential candidate who spent his career casting protest votes in Congress, and is a savvier and more natural politician.
It is Paul’s libertarian flair and penchant for contrarianism that caught the attention of Iowa Republican-party chairman A. J. Spiker, who says he extended the Kentucky senator an invitation to keynote Friday’s dinner after watching his storied 13-hour filibuster over the Obama administration’s drone policy. “That brought more than Republicans together, it brought America together,” Spiker observes.
Standing in the Cedar Rapids kitchen of Dan and Belinda Gee, Paul continues to rail against the bank bailouts. “We’re seen as this party that protected really big business, but, you know, if Dan’s local business goes bankrupt, I’m guessing the government is not going to bail him out,” he says. “So, you know, you can see how some people got turned off to us and said, you know, ‘You’re the party just of big business, not of regular people.’” He adds, “The president has been very adept at this, of saying he’s for the middle class.”