More than once, Paul mentions his support for a 17 percent flat tax, which he claims would add $600 billion to the economy.
The group of Evangelical pastors who lunched with him came away universally impressed. “I see a very good future for Rand Paul here in Iowa,” predicts Brad Cranston of the Heritage Baptist Church in Burlington. “He has a Biblical worldview, as opposed to a secular-humanist worldview, and when you start with that, you really get us listening.”
In previous years, Christian conservative candidates such as former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee have drawn strong support from socially conservative voters. Among Iowa Republicans, there remains an abiding affection for Huckabee, who mounted a surprise victory in the 2008 Iowa caucus. (Three autographed photos of the former governor were auctioned off at Friday’s dinner.)
Paul treads carefully on the issues that matter most to social conservatives. He says he’s “100 percent” pro-life, but maintains there are many exceptions to the rule that abortion is wrong. He personally opposes same-sex marriage, but insists the matter should be left up to the states. Whether his federalism on the question will pass muster with a broader audience of social conservatives remains to be seen, but this group of Evangelical pastors appear receptive to his message about broadening the GOP. “If you think everybody in the Democratic party agrees with each other . . . ” one lunch participant interjects. “I mean, you think all these union guys are for homosexual marriage? I guarantee you, they aren’t!”
The senator from Kentucky is on a mission to broaden the GOP by attracting voters from groups that are reliably Democratic. “We need to compete, frankly, for the African-American vote,” he says. “We need to figure out how we’re the party of the person who is unemployed, the person who is on public assistance, the person who is struggling, and that they’re not bad people.” More than once this weekend, he channels Bill Clinton, telling supporters, “We need to have a GOP that looks more like the rest of the country.”
Paul thinks he knows how to attract such voters. “Half of it is showing up, and I don’t think we’ve been showing up and asking,” he claims, and he is practicing what he preaches. Speaking engagements last month brought Paul to two historically black educational institutions, Howard University and Simmons College, as well as to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He says that in the coming months he will continue to speak to groups whose members traditionally favor Democrats.
His pitch involves consistent reminders of the GOP’s history on race. “Do you know that the South side of Chicago was entirely Republican until 1932?” he asks those gathered in the Gees’ kitchen. His tacit argument: The forces that drew African-Americans away from the GOP after the presidential election of 1928, and into the arms of Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic party, are reversible, if only candidates think more carefully about their rhetoric and try harder.
The gaping hole in Paul’s vision for himself and for the party is in the realm of foreign policy. A Paul aide says he has staffers dedicated to various key issues but no senior foreign-policy hand who advises him on broader strategic matters.
In a February speech at the Heritage Foundation, Paul urged Republicans to look to the Cold War–era policy of containment to combat radical Islam and even, perhaps, a nuclear Iran. That view has yet to gain traction among his colleagues, and the Obama administration has rejected it out of hand. The day after his speech, two Heritage scholars took to the organization’s blog to refute it. Paul says he intended his remarks, which were inspired by Yale historian John Gaddis’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of the Cold War diplomat George F. Kennan, “to illustrate that I do believe in an active strategy.” But making the case that containing the forces of radical Islam or nuclear Iran constitutes the sort of muscular foreign policy typically popular among the GOP rank and file will be an uphill battle.
Paul, it seems, is prepared for that. As he concludes his breakfast remarks in Johnson County, he surveys the room. An outsider could easily mistake it for a Fourth of July celebration: Tables are adorned with American flags and silver streamers. “What we need to be as Republicans is bold and unafraid,” he counsels. “Reagan talked about, you know, ‘Paint in bold colors, not pastels.’”
But he sounds a cautionary note. “What you want is candidates that represent what you stand for, but can also talk to people who don’t yet understand that. We need to be able to talk to those in the middle, on the other side.” Paul clearly sees himself in that role. But for now, he is going to be talking to people in the early-voting states — a lot.
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.