Senator Rand Paul chuckles at the recent attacks on him by Senator John McCain. “I try to not make it personal, and sometimes [McCain] makes it too personal,” he says in an interview at National Review’s Washington office, fresh off his star-turn in a filibuster last week.
McCain and Lindsey Graham, the foreign-policy grandees in the Senate Republican conference, have dismissed Paul’s libertarian views on national security as the “ill informed” posture of one of the party’s “wacko birds.”
Paul has no problem with McCain engaging in debate, “but I think if you’re going to debate, it’s better to leave names out,” he says. “I spoke for 13 hours and never mentioned his name or Lindsey Graham’s name. They spoke for about 20 minutes and decided to use my name quite a bit, including some synonyms I wasn’t aware of, like different types of animals.”
Paul thinks his more senior colleagues miss the point of his efforts. He doesn’t see his filibuster as grandstanding, or his politics as out of the mainstream. Rather, he says, he speaks for a growing coalition of conservatives and independents who have grown weary of war and an increasingly powerful executive branch.
It is nothing less than a fight for the soul of the GOP on foreign policy. Beyond his mild distaste for how some Republicans are countering his arguments, the Kentucky senator thinks the broader discussion is both healthy and necessary. Paul doesn’t want his filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination for director of the Central Intelligence Agency to be remembered as a random moment, but as the beginning of his push to shift the party.
To Paul, now is the right time to push within the GOP for less foreign intervention. “When you saw the debate between President Obama and Romney on foreign policy, they sounded pretty similar. In the vice-presidential debate, Biden was more assertive, but Ryan didn’t disagree with most of his positions,” Paul observes. “It was sort of like, ‘We’ll either come a little bit slower out of Afghanistan, or we’ll do this.’ But Biden had a good response, ‘We’re coming home.’ And I think that’s what people want; I think that’s what people are ready for, that we’re coming home.”
When asked to explain why many Republicans are open to moving away from the Bush-Cheney approach to foreign policy, Paul offers two words: “war weariness.” After more than a decade at war, offering only slight modifications to the Bush agenda — in his view, what the Romney-Ryan platform amounted to — will not be enough to win new voters. Many Republicans, he adds, have privately complained about the direction of the party for years, but only now, after the Romney defeat and five years after Bush, are they willing to consider fresh perspectives on the Republican worldview.
Paul’s filibuster of Brennan was based on a specific issue — the White House’s drone policy — and he says that made a difference. As much as he is eager to make a case for a new GOP foreign policy on several fronts, he predicts that his fight, and any victories, will be incremental. “There will be a place for people in the party who believe in a less aggressive foreign policy,” he says. “There are all different nuances about what, exactly, we will debate. Like with the drone program, a large percentage of the party and the American people agree that in America, you do get a lawyer, you do get due process — other than the Wall Street Journal and a couple people.” (The Journal ran a harshly critical editorial on his filibuster last week.)
By highlighting somewhat narrow issues over the coming months and years, Paul thinks he can force the party to confront the details of its calcified, Bush-shaped positions on everything from executive power to foreign aid. “We took the [Brennan] nomination and talked about the issue instead of the nomination,” he says. That approach, he hopes, will make the media more focused on policy. Part of the GOP’s problem, as he sees it, is an inability to get the press away from writing about Republicans being “petty,” even if they are raising valid concerns. For example, Paul feels the party mishandled its messaging after Obama tapped Chuck Hagel to run the Pentagon. He saw in the Brennan nomination a ripe opportunity to reframe the Republican critique of Obama’s policies. “They weren’t able to do that with [the Hagel nomination],” he says. “I tried to make it more about a principle than Brennan.”
As he reflects, Paul says his real quarrel isn’t with McCain, but with the “John Yoo faction” of the GOP. Yoo, a former official in the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration (and NRO contributor), is an advocate of what Paul calls an “imperial presidency,” especially on national security. “We got [the Obama administration] to admit, in a public way, that the president has a limitation on his power,” Paul says. “Some believe there is no limitation. That is a scary thought to most ordinary people.”
Paul, a 50-year-old ophthalmologist from Bowling Green, Ky., was elected in 2010, after beating an establishment favorite in a contentious Republican primary. His father, Ron, is now retired from the House of Representatives, but remains an inspiration for Paul’s politics. Many libertarian-minded conservatives see Rand Paul as an heir of sorts of his father’s message. Paul acknowledges that his father has deeply shaped his views. But his mission, it seems, isn’t just to carry a torch for the libertarian flank of the GOP, but to use libertarians to broaden the party’s national appeal. “We have to, as a Republican party, get bigger, not smaller,” he says. “We’re a party that’s becoming more regionalized — a smaller and less significant national party.”
“We’re a great red-state party,” Paul says, smiling, since he hails from the conservative Bluegrass State and counts himself as a member of the Tea Party. “We’re getting redder and redder in those states. My state voted 61 percent for Romney. But in the areas where we’re not competitive, we’re just completely not competitive.” He wonders aloud why Republicans have apparently given up on states such as California and Washington, where, he believes, there are many libertarian-types who are open to a refurbished Republican agenda.
Paul says foreign policy is an instrumental way to expand the GOP, but it’s not the only way. Social issues are another area where he thinks Republicans can make a better argument to independents and centrists without departing from their principles. Gay marriage, for instance, is one issue on which Paul would like to shake up the Republican position. “I’m an old-fashioned traditionalist. I believe in the historic and religious definition of marriage,” he says. “That being said, I’m not for eliminating contracts between adults. I think there are ways to make the tax code more neutral, so it doesn’t mention marriage. Then we don’t have to redefine what marriage is; we just don’t have marriage in the tax code.”
Across the board, Paul says, Republicans need to be open to accepting new ideas, or at the very least, willing to listen to new voices. On fiscal policy, he admires Paul Ryan’s push to balance the budget in a decade, but would prefer to see the budget balanced in five years. While Paul knows that his five-year plan is probably never going to get passed, he wants to be the Republican who is shaping the terms of every debate, so that tea-party perspectives or libertarian themes are included. “[Ryan’s] coming in the right direction,” he says. “He was at 28 years [to balance the budget] last year, and he’s come to ten. I think by having our plan out there at five, we have a lot of people coming in our direction.”
But it’s foreign policy that remains Paul’s chief focus. Before Paul can reshape the party’s program on national security, he knows he needs to spend time on the Senate floor, making his arguments colleague to colleague. “Five or six” Democrats, he says, have expressed their admiration for his determination to bring controversial topics to the fore. To him, those comments are a sign that there is room for future talks about passing legislation regarding national-security and personal liberty.
Of course, Paul is realistic (and pessimistic) about his chances of passing such bills in a Democratic-controlled Senate during the second term of the Obama presidency. But raising these issues keeps the conversation alive. Even when a filibuster fails, he says, the national attention for the idea is worth the effort.
Paul, who began his political career as an aide to his father’s presidential campaigns, is a firm believer that one politician, even if he is not fully embraced by GOP leaders, can change the direction of the party and the views of the base. The difference, perhaps, is that Ron Paul frequently played the outside game, railing against the establishment from the campaign trail, whereas Rand Paul has become a savvy legislative operator.
Paul’s filibuster has also stirred talk of a White House run in 2016. He says he’s open to the possibility. But for now, his campaign is within the marble halls of the Capitol, not in the Iowa cornfields. “You know, I just went to the floor,” he says, recalling how his famous filibuster started. “All of sudden, it just sort of happened.” You can say the same about the rapid ascent of Rand Paul.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.