Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is hot right now, fresh off his CPAC victory and successful filibuster, and even those who like him may underestimate his appeal.
Yes, he’s got the “libertarian kids,” as Politico noted when Paul wrote an op-ed for PolicyMic. But Paul could also run strong with social conservatives and even erstwhile proponents of building democracy in the sands of the Middle East. All is not lost for the GOP. In over 150 years of existence, the Republican Party has weathered many a storm. The question is not whether change will come, but who the change-bearer will be. Paul is uniquely positioned to enjoy or gain the trust of key constituencies in the GOP and to broaden the fold. Whether he becomes the leader of the party or not, his philosophy offers a way forward.
Paul is a libertarian. He emphasizes that he doesn’t want to tell other people how to live. But you won’t hear him talk as much about the fact that as a Christian he is also pro-life and believes marriage is between a man and a woman. He doesn’t have to. He believes in the Tenth Amendment, and so his position is that people in the states and in local communities should decide for themselves issues that are sensitive and around which a national consensus has not yet formed." Solutions should not be imposed from above by judges. This happened with abortion after Roe v. Wade and our national politics has been poisoned ever since. The state, Paul believes, should get out of the marriage business altogether.
Paul will continue to talk primarily about the national security threat posed by the debt, which Mitch Daniels called the new Red Menace, and entitlements as well as the irresponsibility of bailing out banks while Main St. suffers and stagnates. There is enough Hayek and von Mises behind his reasoning to withstand the crudest attacks of a Paul Krugman. But Paul won’t forget that it’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. Social conservatives trust Paul because they know he has been a Christian his whole life. If there is a difference in tone or change of emphasis in his discussion of the “social issues,” no love lost. Social conservatives feel he understands them and has their concerns close to his heart.
Paul, in addition, represents a proud constitutionalist tradition in foreign policy that goes back to George Washington. It stretches through the thinking of George Kennan and George Will. This tradition believes that Congress, like the president, has its rightful place in matters of war and peace. America does not go abroad in search of monsters to slay. Many theorists of executive power who were convinced that a war in Iraq was the appropriate response to 9/11 have seen their optimism in the transformative power of politics chastened. Some will no doubt continue to suspect Paul of isolationism; my hunch is that most will find his policy of restraint infinitely preferable to Barack Obama-style drift and dithering.
Economic conservatives, social conservatives, and foreign policy conservatives: A Republican candidate who brings all three together has traditionally done well (think Reagan and George W. Bush in ’00 and ’04). If Paul or someone who shares his libertarian or constitutionalist brand of conservatism and ability to speak without dividing can expand the map to include more millennials and immigrants, without alienating significant parts of the party establishment, the GOP could be competitive again. Conservatives are juiced after CPAC. Perhaps, after our experiment with big government conservatism from 2000-2012, it’s time to give the conservatism of freedom a real shot.