Soon after Rand Paul won Kentucky’s GOP Senate primary in May, his campaign was rocked — not by an affair or a kamikaze YouTube clip, but by his own textbook libertarianism. In a series of post-election interviews, Paul criticized parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, expressing concern about the federal government’s power to regulate private behavior. For raising a question about the landmark bill, Paul was roundly lambasted by the press, Democrats, and many Republicans. “Everybody piled on,” he laments in an interview with National Review. To stop the bleeding, Paul quickly went mum, canceling a scheduled sitdown with NBC’s Meet the Press and other media appearances.
Now, two months later, Paul leads in the polls, topping Democrat Jack Conway, the state’s attorney general, by seven points in Rasmussen’s latest survey. His campaign has also had its best quarter at the bank, raking in $1.1 million. Nevertheless, Paul tells us that he still feels burned by that civil-rights firestorm. “Since the election, they’ve been trying to characterize me as something I’m not,” he says. “Same with the tea parties. At every rally, they’re trying to find the one sign that makes the tea parties look racist. It has been a concerted effort.”
Paul, 47, an ophthalmologist by profession, says the kerfuffle has changed the way he campaigns. “After the primary, I really wanted to jump right into the national debate,” he says. His civil-rights remarks, he admits, “have made doing that a little more difficult.” However, “No one [in the GOP] is forcing me to do anything. I do exactly what I want, but I am also realistic about what it takes to run a campaign and get elected.” For instance, instead of calling for the elimination of many federal departments — as his father, Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican congressman and former presidential candidate, regularly does — Paul says he is trying to “nibble around the edges,” to “not be the person who says he will eliminate every department in the federal government. My dad freely will say that, that he would eliminate at least half of the departments, but he is just more forthright.”
So is Paul a libertarian like his father? Depends on what you mean by that, he says. He tells us that he sees himself as a “constitutional conservative.” But he adds, “If you say that libertarianism means you really believe in a stricter construction of the Constitution, that you believe in a government that is much closer to the way the Founding Fathers envisioned,” then yes, he could be considered a libertarian of sorts.
Quite a cagey answer. “I have a target on me,” Paul laughs. “If you take my shirt off, you can see the target on my back.” That doesn’t mean, of course, that Paul shuns the spotlight — or will repudiate his beliefs. If he wins in November, he says, he is interested in helping to form a new “nucleus” of conservatives in the Senate — a “tea-party caucus.” Does that mean he would consider voting for a GOP leader other than Sen. Mitch McConnell, his fellow Kentucky Republican and Senate minority leader? “Maybe,” Paul says. For now, however, he is pleased to have McConnell’s help on the trail, especially after the senior senator backed Paul’s primary opponent.
“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.