San Francisco — Senator Rand Paul came to the Bay Area this weekend to speak at the inaugural Reboot conference — a meeting of people who want to bring high technology to political campaigns that blend conservative and libertarian principles. In other words, the audience was predisposed to be friendly, but was also wary, having been disenchanted with past GOP presidential candidates and their approach to tech. Paul left a positive impression but also made it clear just how different in approach he is from his 78-year-old father, former representative Ron Paul.
A recent Gallup poll found that 42 percent of Americans now view themselves as politically independent — an all-time high. Polls of young people find an increasing number consider themselves fiscally conservative and socially liberal — a vague definition of what it means to be libertarian. Aaron Ginn, a co-founder of the conference who works at an Internet startup in San Francisco, says the group is embodied by the “conservatarian” label. That may be clunky, but at least in the Bay Area it doesn’t carry the social-conservative baggage that the word “conservative” does.
Rand Paul has long emphasized the need for Republicans to reach out to constituencies that consider the party to be rusty, fusty, and out-of-date. He won a standing ovation earlier this year at UC Berkeley by making common cause with young people worried about intrusions on their civil liberties from National Security Agency activities.
Paul took a kinder and gentler approach to the NSA in front of the Reboot audience, perhaps mindful of the criticism he has taken recently from national-security hawks. “I’m not really complaining about spying, I’m not really complaining about the NSA. I’m complaining about the process,” he said in his keynote speech. He warned that if due-process rights and transparency aren’t observed, the nation will be giving up a great deal. “If someday the public thinks that Gmail equals government mail, and you’re not being protected,” he said, “the backlash will not only be against government but it will be against private entities.”
His approach yielded mixed results from his young audience. Matthew Del Carlo, the chief operating officer for California’s Young Republicans, told me Paul’s approach was “refreshing and honest, the kind of straight talk people don’t hear from everyday politicians.” Joel Molbray, a business consultant who has covered the State Department as a journalist, was more skeptical: “He seemed to be obscuring some of the restrictions he would create on security agencies and minimizing their impact.”
The audience seemed to be in complete agreement with the barbs that Paul launched at the White House. He expressed exasperation that so many Silicon Valley businesspeople “were all for President Obama.” He noted that the administration has been hostile to tort reform, has done little to reduce runaway college tuition costs, and has done the bidding of Old Economy labor unions. “Obama is not for innovation, he’s not for freedom, he’s for the protectionism crowd — he’s for the people who would limit creative companies out here,” he said. “Innovation only occurs if you don’t have government protecting rackets, if you don’t have government protecting crony capitalism.”
Paul then went on to slam recent comments by Barack and Michelle Obama slighting minimum-wage jobs. The president said his own daughters should know that “getting a paycheck isn’t always fun, not always stimulating, not always fair.” Michelle said she thought “every kid needs to get a taste of what it’s like to do that real hard work.” Paul said he instead viewed the minimum wage as “a chance to get started. I see my son come home with his tips. He’s proud of himself and I don’t want him to stop there. But he’s working, and he’s understanding the value of work. We shouldn’t disparage that.”
Senator Paul skillfully sought common ground with his anti-government audience through anecdotes and cultural references while at the same time making it clear he wasn’t going to provide an easy target for those wanting to label him an extremist. He began by saying that his work in Washington, D.C., had him bumping up against the Ellsworth Tooheys of the world, a reference to a parasitic villain in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. But when he visited Silicon Valley he thought he was among “today’s Howard Roarks,” the individualistic, brilliant architect in the book. “You all create jobs every single day out of nothing,” he enthused.
But Paul also made it clear he doesn’t share all of Rand’s worldview. “If I had my way there would still be a safety net, but everybody would work,” he mused. “If your back hurts and you can’t lift things you could sit and make phone calls — everybody should work.” He quickly clarified that a few people would not be capable of any productive work.
The crowd cheered when someone in the audience suggested that Paul should run for president in 2016, a notion he did nothing to disabuse them from. On the plus side, his folksy informality was a good fit for the younger, hipper voters in the room. But some political veterans who attended the conference still questioned whether he quite yet had the gravitas that older GOP-primary voters have been known to look for. Certainly, Paul has to worry about the Republican establishment ganging up on him and trying to label him as “unelectable.”
But in recent elections it’s been stale, retread candidates like John McCain and Mitt Romney who couldn’t convince millions of people who voted for Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush to go to the polls. Regardless of whether he runs, Rand Paul’s constant outreach to constituencies that don’t often take Republicans seriously is a boon to both his party and his ideas.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.