“I think I will be part of a nucleus with Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn, who are unafraid to stand up,” Paul says. “If we get another loud voice in there, like Mike Lee from Utah or Sharron Angle from Nevada, there will be a new nucleus. . . . Term limits, a balanced-budget amendment, having bills point to where they are enumerated in the Constitution — those issues resonate with the tea party. I know Republicans are trying to get something going, and I don’t know their list, but if I had a contract with America, these things would be in it. These are not radical ideas — they are reform-minded, good-government ideas.”
When he is asked what committees he would like to serve on, he answers that since “we live in an almost pure democracy now, where there is hardly any constitutional restraint,” he wants to revive the “Harry Byrd committee,” or, as he puts it, “the waste-reduction committee” — referring to a past Senate committee on nonessential expenditures. “I do not want to be on the Appropriations Committee.”
As we turn to foreign policy, Paul says it is on this front that he finds himself most at odds with the GOP. However, he confides that he seldom talks about his foreign-policy positions, because what the voters really care about is economic matters. On the campaign trail, he says, “I’m not thinking about Afghanistan; foreign policy is really a complete non-issue.” He hopes that if he makes it to the Senate, there will be “room for discussion” on foreign-policy issues within the party, especially on Afghanistan. “Within Republican and conservative circles, the position is somewhat monolithic,” he says. “But how long is long enough? It’s too simplistic to say there is never a time to come home, or that it’s unpatriotic to debate. There are reasonable people, conservatives like me, who believe that defense is the primary role of the federal government, but do not believe that you can make Afghanistan into a nation. It never has been one.” If he had the chance to ask General Petraeus some questions, he says he’d ask, “Is there an end? How can it end? And is it still in our interests?” Nonetheless, he believes that Congress “should not micromanage war” and that efforts to control aspects of military policy, like troop levels, “may be unconstitutional.”
Paul is quick to add that as much as he wants to shake things up, he is optimistic that the GOP Senate caucus can change from within. “If you watch the messages coming out of Washington, [the GOP Senate caucus] is already more conservative,” he says. McConnell, he adds, “has done a good job in keeping Republicans together in opposition to Obama’s plans. . . . He’s very good, particularly as a minority leader. I don’t know if they can keep that together. We’ll see.”
As the flareup over his civil-rights remarks fades into the vast wasteland of old news, Paul says he is focusing more on winning the race than on winning an argument. His top three issues from now until November? “The debt, the debt, and the debt,” he says. Conway, he notes, may be “telegenic, and they say he has a much squarer jaw than I do,” but “I think I can outwit him.”
– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. fellow at the National Review Institute.