Cedar Rapids, Iowa — “We interrupt our lives sometimes to try to do something for the country,” Rand Paul tells a group of Iowa Republicans gathered in the kitchen of a Cedar Rapids home. “I interrupted my life as a physician to try and help the country.”
The 2016 presidential race will begin, of course, in Iowa, and it may be starting now.
Paul is in Cedar Rapids to deliver the keynote address at the Iowa Republican party’s annual Lincoln Day dinner, but he also is using the visit to introduce himself to people in the first state to hold caucuses in the presidential race. He is lunching behind closed doors with a small group of Evangelical pastors, dropping by a private home for an afternoon coffee, and squeezing in an event at a local community center — the Johnson County Republicans’ “Breakfast of Champions” — before heading out of town.
It is not a coincidence that, in the next two months, he will visit New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.
The broad outlines of a stump speech — part comedy, part indignation — are evident. Pacing across the stage during his keynote address, he mocks the absurd bureaucracy spawned by the president’s health-care bill. “We have 72 codes for injuries just from birds,” he says incredulously, “and nine new codes for injuries from the macaw.” Paul, an ophthalmologist, tells the crowd, “I’ve asked physicians across the country, have you ever seen an injury sustained from a macaw?”
He reserves his ire for Hillary Clinton, whose failure to respond to diplomats’ repeated requests for increased security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi constitutes a “dereliction of duty” that “should preclude her from holding higher office.”
“First question for Hillary Clinton: Where the hell were the Marines?” he asks, referring to the security provided to the compound prior to last September’s attack. The crowd rises to its feet, offering whoops, cheers, and enthusiastic whistles of support. Earlier in the day, Paul compared the Benghazi attack to the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, in which 18 American soldiers were killed at the hands of Somali militiamen. Before and during the Benghazi incident, Paul says, Clinton displayed a “tragic lack of leadership, similar to what Les Aspin did in Mogadishu under Bill Clinton.” In the months before the showdown on the streets of Mogadishu, then–secretary of defense Les Aspin denied the military’s request for armored reinforcements in Somalia. He resigned months later.
Paul offers inspiration, too. Exiting the stage Friday night, he tells the crowd, “We need the passion of Patrick Henry, ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’” Working in a more contemporary reference but striking the same idealistic note, he adds, “We also need the passion of what young people who are in love have,” and breaks into an impromptu recitation of the Proclaimers’ song “500 Miles.” “I love this song. It’s like, ‘I will walk 500 miles, and I will walk 500 more, just to be the man who walked 500 miles to fall down at your door.’”
From the kitchen table to the banquet hall to the community-center basement here in Cedar Rapids, Paul is engaging in the retail politics that give birth to presidential campaigns in early primary states. But he also has a higher vision of politics and of his role in the GOP.
“Politics is always the art of fusion, bringing people together who don’t agree on every issue and trying to find some common theme,” he tells reporters, explaining the need for the GOP to shore up its base while opening its arms to new voters.
Paul himself is practicing that art, attempting to fuse the libertarian and the socially conservative strands of the Republican party. As a lawmaker, he embodies the tension between them, a tension that has existed since the birth of the modern conservative movement. A tea-party favorite, he is a leader of the GOP’s libertarian wing, having criticized big-bank bailouts; created a scene in a Nashville airport after refusing a pat-down by Transportation Security Administration officials; and sponsored a bill to gut the TSA entirely. At the same time, he calls himself as a born-again Christian and opposes both abortion and gay marriage.
As he contemplates a national political campaign — he says he won’t make a decision about a presidential bid until next year — it is clear that he has learned the lessons of his father, a failed three-time presidential candidate who spent his career casting protest votes in Congress, and is a savvier and more natural politician.
It is Paul’s libertarian flair and penchant for contrarianism that caught the attention of Iowa Republican-party chairman A. J. Spiker, who says he extended the Kentucky senator an invitation to keynote Friday’s dinner after watching his storied 13-hour filibuster over the Obama administration’s drone policy. “That brought more than Republicans together, it brought America together,” Spiker observes.
Standing in the Cedar Rapids kitchen of Dan and Belinda Gee, Paul continues to rail against the bank bailouts. “We’re seen as this party that protected really big business, but, you know, if Dan’s local business goes bankrupt, I’m guessing the government is not going to bail him out,” he says. “So, you know, you can see how some people got turned off to us and said, you know, ‘You’re the party just of big business, not of regular people.’” He adds, “The president has been very adept at this, of saying he’s for the middle class.”
More than once, Paul mentions his support for a 17 percent flat tax, which he claims would add $600 billion to the economy.
The group of Evangelical pastors who lunched with him came away universally impressed. “I see a very good future for Rand Paul here in Iowa,” predicts Brad Cranston of the Heritage Baptist Church in Burlington. “He has a Biblical worldview, as opposed to a secular-humanist worldview, and when you start with that, you really get us listening.”
In previous years, Christian conservative candidates such as former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee have drawn strong support from socially conservative voters. Among Iowa Republicans, there remains an abiding affection for Huckabee, who mounted a surprise victory in the 2008 Iowa caucus. (Three autographed photos of the former governor were auctioned off at Friday’s dinner.)
Paul treads carefully on the issues that matter most to social conservatives. He says he’s “100 percent” pro-life, but maintains there are many exceptions to the rule that abortion is wrong. He personally opposes same-sex marriage, but insists the matter should be left up to the states. Whether his federalism on the question will pass muster with a broader audience of social conservatives remains to be seen, but this group of Evangelical pastors appear receptive to his message about broadening the GOP. “If you think everybody in the Democratic party agrees with each other . . . ” one lunch participant interjects. “I mean, you think all these union guys are for homosexual marriage? I guarantee you, they aren’t!”
The senator from Kentucky is on a mission to broaden the GOP by attracting voters from groups that are reliably Democratic. “We need to compete, frankly, for the African-American vote,” he says. “We need to figure out how we’re the party of the person who is unemployed, the person who is on public assistance, the person who is struggling, and that they’re not bad people.” More than once this weekend, he channels Bill Clinton, telling supporters, “We need to have a GOP that looks more like the rest of the country.”
Paul thinks he knows how to attract such voters. “Half of it is showing up, and I don’t think we’ve been showing up and asking,” he claims, and he is practicing what he preaches. Speaking engagements last month brought Paul to two historically black educational institutions, Howard University and Simmons College, as well as to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He says that in the coming months he will continue to speak to groups whose members traditionally favor Democrats.
His pitch involves consistent reminders of the GOP’s history on race. “Do you know that the South side of Chicago was entirely Republican until 1932?” he asks those gathered in the Gees’ kitchen. His tacit argument: The forces that drew African-Americans away from the GOP after the presidential election of 1928, and into the arms of Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic party, are reversible, if only candidates think more carefully about their rhetoric and try harder.
The gaping hole in Paul’s vision for himself and for the party is in the realm of foreign policy. A Paul aide says he has staffers dedicated to various key issues but no senior foreign-policy hand who advises him on broader strategic matters.
In a February speech at the Heritage Foundation, Paul urged Republicans to look to the Cold War–era policy of containment to combat radical Islam and even, perhaps, a nuclear Iran. That view has yet to gain traction among his colleagues, and the Obama administration has rejected it out of hand. The day after his speech, two Heritage scholars took to the organization’s blog to refute it. Paul says he intended his remarks, which were inspired by Yale historian John Gaddis’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of the Cold War diplomat George F. Kennan, “to illustrate that I do believe in an active strategy.” But making the case that containing the forces of radical Islam or nuclear Iran constitutes the sort of muscular foreign policy typically popular among the GOP rank and file will be an uphill battle.
Paul, it seems, is prepared for that. As he concludes his breakfast remarks in Johnson County, he surveys the room. An outsider could easily mistake it for a Fourth of July celebration: Tables are adorned with American flags and silver streamers. “What we need to be as Republicans is bold and unafraid,” he counsels. “Reagan talked about, you know, ‘Paint in bold colors, not pastels.’”
But he sounds a cautionary note. “What you want is candidates that represent what you stand for, but can also talk to people who don’t yet understand that. We need to be able to talk to those in the middle, on the other side.” Paul clearly sees himself in that role. But for now, he is going to be talking to people in the early-voting states — a lot.
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.