Two years ago, Rand Paul delivered the official tea-party response to the president’s State of the Union address. Two years from now, the Kentucky senator hopes to be the one delivering the address itself.
As has become his custom, Paul will record a response to tonight’s speech from his Senate office before flooding the airwaves with television appearances. He’s even unveiling a new website for the occasion, RandResponse.com. And this year, the senator is looking to lob missiles as much at his potential rivals for the GOP nomination as he is President Obama and Democrats.
He will highlight, for example, his opposition to the National Security Agency’s data-collection program, which he believes will distinguish him among his counterparts once the primary gets underway. “We have set up a privileged class in Washington, and Americans are sick and tired of it,” Paul will say in his response. “The Constitution is clear. Politicians should not collect this information without a warrant. Warrants must be specific to an individual and there must be probable cause before government is allowed to search any American’s documents.”
In yet another hint at where his focus is, Paul, in an interview in his Senate office this afternoon, was happy to ignore the upcoming address and talk about the candidates — and the issues — that are likely to confront him on the campaign trail. He’s been taking jabs at the former left and right, calling former Florida governor Jeb Bush a “big-government Republican” and calling former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney “yesterday’s news” and deriding his decision to consider a third presidential bid “the definition of insanity.” Then Paul’s top adviser Doug Stafford lit into Romney on Twitter.
I ask Paul if he’s concerned the jousting risks making him look juvenile. All the jabs, he says, have been “in good spirit” and “pretty softball.”
He pauses: “You realize, every one of those things, I didn’t start. You realize that, the truth of the matter is that, in politics, you do have to defend your positions. If people attack your positions, if you’re not willing to defend them then I think you really need to probably try some other occupation because I’m not going to take it, basically, if my positions are attacked I will defend them. If nobody ever brought my name up, I would never bring their name up.”
That may be true of the senator’s spats with New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former Florida senator Marco Rubio, both of whom jabbed Paul about his non-interventionist foreign-policy positions, but Romney and Bush were not the instigators. And Paul seems to delight in provoking them.
In the conference room in his Senate office, we sit under dual portraits that hang above the oval table: On the left sits one of the senator’s father, the former Texas congressman Ron Paul, and on the right, one of the senator himself. That pairing represents one of the senator’s biggest hurdles on the road to the White House: the elder Paul with all of his kooky and unorthodox views and the younger’s loyalty to him.
I ask Paul, given the foreign-policy crises that have popped up across the globe and the Obama administration’s seeming inability to confront them, how much of an appetite he thinks there is for a Republican candidate who holds anti-Bush foreign-policy views.
“I guess I wouldn’t call it anti-Bush, even if there is a Bush in the race,” he says. Paul has said he doesn’t believe President Obama has made the country less safe, and that the root of the country’s current foreign-policy challenges lies in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
He says there’s plenty to indicate that a good portion of the GOP agrees with him. He points to an October poll from Bloomberg News and the Des Moines Register that shows Iowa’s GOP caucus-goers are split down the middle, 45 to 41 percent, between a preference for more intervention abroad “as John McCain suggests” and less intervention abroad “as Rand Paul suggests.”
And he says more Republicans now oppose the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in retrospect, than support it. A January poll from the Pew Research Center shows that a majority of Republicans continue to support it, though a majority also says that the U.S. has failed to achieve its objectives there.
“That actually shows that I’m in a position that’s actually a pretty good one,” Paul says. “I’m happy to occupy that space and everybody else can split what’s left.”