Rand Paul, the Crunchy Con

by Robert Costa
The senator returns to his roots.

Simi Valley, Calif. — Long before he was famous for a filibuster, Senator Rand Paul was a cargo-shorts-wearing ophthalmologist who lived in Bowling Green, Ky. His political activity, beyond supporting his father, was relegated to reading through his bookshelf, which was stocked with the works of Austrian economists and obscure philosophers. He wore hemp shirts, bought organic vegetables, and canoed. But since winning his Senate seat three years ago, Paul has mostly kept that side of himself — his “crunchy conservatism,” as he calls it — under wraps. Instead, he has played up his tea-party persona, and focused on legislating in the buttoned-down Senate.

But during a speech here on Friday night at the Ronald Reagan presidential library, and in a tour of several tech companies, the crunchy Rand Paul reemerged. “I’m a libertarian conservative who spends most of my free time outdoors,” he told the sold-out crowd. “I bike and hike and kayak, and I compost.” The audience, which was full of retired businessmen and lawyers, laughed as he made light of his bohemian ways. “In fact,” he continued, “I have a giant Sequoia I’m trying to grow in Kentucky.”

Paul’s unabashed crunchiness — the term was popularized by former National Review writer Rod Dreher to describe some conservatives’ taste for granola, Birkenstocks, and Mother Nature — wasn’t just a stylistic aside. He argued that his lifestyle is a reflection of his reform agenda for the GOP, which is founded on themes of local control, states’ rights, and free enterprise. He spoke about how the party needs to be a voice for those who love the environment but want the government to stop intruding in their lives and livelihoods. “When we as Republicans wake up and tell voters that we want to be the champion of the small farmer and the small businessman or woman, then we will thrive as a party,” he said. “Republicans care just as deeply about the environment as Democrats, but we also care about jobs.”

Paul’s advisers tell me that the senator’s eco-friendly message isn’t so much an evolution as a strategic embrace of his old self, especially as Republicans struggle to connect with young voters and make inroads with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Ahead of the 2016 presidential election, Paul wants to establish himself as their candidate — to be a fresh-faced leader who appeals to web-savvy independents, as well as to conservatives. For this reason, his West Coast trip wasn’t a quick visit, but a carefully planned, six-day effort. And to Paul’s circle, it was as important as his stumping in early-primary states.

Paul arrived last Tuesday and stayed until Sunday. He traveled with Doug Stafford, his former Senate chief of staff who now works as his chief political adviser, and with his wife, Kelley. His youngest son, Robert, came too. Most of his time was spent huddling with potential donors. There were private meetings and dinners, plus shop talk with programmers. He spent a few hours at Google’s headquarters, stopped by eBay, and made a pilgrimage to Facebook in Palo Alto. At the last of these stops, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s 29-year-old founder, made a surprise appearance. After their chat, Paul scribbled a Patrick Henry–inspired message — “Give me liberty to post” — on the Facebook wall, a hallway-size chalkboard.

Most of the conversations weren’t about politics. When he spoke with engineers and developers at Google, it was more of a “back-and-forth on Internet law,” according to one person familiar with the discussion. “He wasn’t selling his politics as much as his interest in their work and their industry.”

In an interview with TechCrunch, Paul said that the trip was, by and large, a success. “My general impression of Silicon Valley and California, in general, is that libertarian-style Republicans would do better out here, and that Bush Republicans haven’t been doing well out here in a long time,” he said.

Paul acknowledged that the Bay Area and Southern California are tough regions for the GOP, but he believes there’s a bloc of quiet conservatives who would like to be courted by a Republican who’s sympathetic to their worldview — and nonjudgmental. “When the Republican party looks like the rest of America, we will win again,” he said at the Reagan library. “When we have people with tattoos and without tattoos, with ties and without ties, with suits and in blue jeans, then we win nationally.”

The question for Paul, now that he’s back on Capitol Hill, is whether he can translate a solid week of speaking and relationship building in the Golden State into donations and momentum, and make his rediscovered crunchiness more than a passing fancy.

His advisers say they’ll keep reaching out to everyone he met for ideas and support, and they expect Paul to balance his talk of hiking and composting with his usual emphasis on personal liberty and freedom. By challenging the party from within, and being more open about his tree-hugging temperament, they’re hoping he can cultivate support beyond the Tea Party.

But it’s Paul’s passion, more than anything, that will likely set him apart and animate his crunchy spin on Republican politics. “I think of the passion of Patrick Henry — ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ — combined with the energy of the Proclaimers’ song,” he told the Reagan crowd at the end of his speech. He then quoted the band’s most famous lyric: “I will walk 500 miles, and I will walk 500 more, just to be the guy who walked that thousand miles to fall down at your door.’”

This time, instead of chuckling, the crowd cheered.

Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.

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