Last week, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to pitch a comeback plan for conservatives. His choice of venue was no accident: Simi Valley has become a required pit stop for Republicans with presidential designs, and after seizing the nation’s attention with his recent filibuster, Paul is riding high atop the GOP’s list of 2016 nominees.
Paul began by poking fun at himself:
"I hope you’ve got a comfortable seat, because once I get going, I can go on …."
And he did. Rand Paul presented a sweeping vision of a conservative America which elicited repeated outbursts of approval. The atmosphere was electric — part war council, part religious revival. In an address marked with soaring optimism about the future of the country, Paul cited Reagan as the model of how Republicans can start winning elections again.
But he's dead wrong.
Paul was on familiar ground when attacking government bailouts:
"I got into politics at the beginning of this Tea Party movement because I abhorred a government that took from the middle class to bail out big, rich banks … We need to capitalize on what most people believe — that the Democrats are the ones orchestrating bailouts and we’re opposed to these bailouts."
Let’s rewind the tape a bit. The $700 billion bailout program known as TARP was signed into law by George W. Bush in 2008 — three months before Obama took office. And while Obama protects the interests of financial robber-barons, he is continuing the incestuous relationship between Wall Street and Washington which was a defining feature of the Bush administration. It’s worth recalling that TARP was the brainchild of Bush’s Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson, who ran Goldman Sachs before being tapped by Bush to safeguard the nation’s finances.
Make no mistake — Democrats played a major role in causing the economic crisis. But the idea that they alone are to blame for bailouts is a gross mischaracterization designed to resonate with conservative audiences.
Bailouts often result from an under-regulated economic system — one in which market participants are free to play for high stakes without government interference. It’s the kind of laissez-faire approach that conservatives like Paul adore: If we only shrink the size of government, cut needless regulation, and let markets work, all will be well.
Republicans keep trying to prove that left alone, markets will take care of themselves.
They keep trying, and they keep failing.
Calvin Coolidge famously threw fuel on an already-overheated securities market in the 1920s, directly contributing to the speculation which led to the Great Depression. It is one of history’s greater ironies that the New Deal state which conservatives deplore arose as a result of a Republican’s failure to employ less-ambitious regulations when he had the chance.
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan created the biggest Wall Street bailout up to that point in history by deregulating the savings-and-loan industry. The high-risk gambling in commercial real estate which ensued led to an unprecedented $160 billion taxpayer-funded bailout.
Fast-forward to 2008. When Hank Paulson explained that a financial rescue might require bailing out Wall Street banks, George W. Bush blankly asked him how such a thing could have happened.
"It was a humbling question for someone from the financial sector to be asked," recalled Paulson. "After all, we were the ones responsible."
The we Paulson refers to includes Wall Street CEOs and their water-carriers in Washington— all of whom pushed for the kind of deregulation which Rand Paul believes will put the economy on firmer ground today. As I sat there watching him speak, I wondered if he realized that the deregulation he champions causes the very bailouts he abhors.
To enter the House of Reagan and inveigh against deficits is the kind of paradox that could easily cause the universe to self-destruct. Ronald Reagan created historic deficits by his insistence on increasing spending while simultaneously cutting taxes on the wealthy. (Yes, the wealthy. Reagan gave them a massive tax cut his first year in office, then raised everyone else’s taxes in each of the next six years of his presidency.) When confronted by his budget director over alarming deficits in his first term, Reagan allayed his concerns:
"When I was asked during the campaign about what I would do if it came down to a choice between defense and deficits, I always said national security had to come first, and the people applauded every time."
And the people kept applauding as Rand Paul laid into "Democratic deficits," but the reality is that Republicans have done more to create deficits than Democrats. It took a Democratic president to balance the budget and interrupt the legacy of Reagan's reckless spending habits — a legacy Republicans wasted no time continuing when they returned to the White House in 2000.
When Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill warned against growing deficits during George W. Bush’s first term, Dick Cheney upbraided him by invoking the Holy of Holies:
"You know, Paul, Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter."
By trying to pawn deficits off as a Democratic problem, Rand Paul shows either an egregious lack of understanding about basic economics or a willingness to ruthlessly manipulate facts for political gain.
As he surveyed the damage of the Reagan years, one astute observer asked: "How is it that the party of balanced budgets, with control of the White House and Senate, accumulated red ink greater than all previous administrations put together?
"There is no credibility left for the Republican Party as a force to reduce the size of government. That is the message of the Reagan years."
The name of this insufferable liberal?
What is It Good For?
One of the best things about Rand Paul is his willingness to take on his own party and question the use of military force. In a shot aimed at congressional hawks like John McCain, he argued:
"There are some in our party who mistake war for defense. If you don’t believe in eternal and perpetual war, it doesn’t mean you don’t believe in a strong national defense."
Such sentiments echo the isolationism of Robert Taft — a view held by many conservatives prior to World War II. Paul was on firm footing as he explained how the framers of the Constitution intended for decisions about war to be made:
"We need to, as a country, decide when things are in our national interest. Historically, that was constitutionally done by Congress. Declaration of war was a very important thing that we did. I have no problem having that debate. If we need to go to war in Syria, let’s have the debate ... Sometimes we’re too loose with that. We just say, “Oh yeah, it’s national security interest to be in Syria.” Well, to me it takes a little more of a debate to convince me that that’s a good thing to do."
The nation today is weary of its long, drawn-out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Paul’s aversion to needless military engagements is exactly the right message. He reflected that his filibuster "was not about drones so much as it was about the Bill of Rights."
Paul’s commitment to upholding the constitutional basis for going to war is admirable.
Too bad that making it in the House of Reagan completely undermines his credibility.
If Paul thinks invading Syria is a stretch, what about Grenada? Reagan appeared on national television in to warn that the tiny island best known for spice and bananas was actually a Communist beachhead which threatened America’s national security. Not having much to go on, he went with a less-is-more approach:
"I wish I could show you more without compromising our most sensitive intelligence sources…"
The American people were unconvinced, and when Congress refused to authorize the use of force, Reagan bypassed it by signing an executive order instructing his own national security team to overthrow Grenada’s government.
And what about the Iran-Contra scandal? Reagan violated the Arms Export Control Act by allowing Israel to secretly ship US weapons to Iran without informing Congress. He violated the Foreign Assistance Act by ordering the CIA to ship antiaircraft missiles to Iran without declaring it to be of vital national interest. And he violated the Boland Amendment by secretly funding a war in Nicaragua over the express prohibition of Congress. Throughout his presidency, Reagan seized war powers the framers never intended a president to have.
That Constitution Rand Paul cares so much about?
Ronald Reagan trampled it underfoot.
We’re Going To Need A Bigger Tent
Paul ended his remarks with what appeared at first glance to be a rousing call for Republican inclusivity:
"If we want to win nationally again, we will need to reach out to a diverse nation. We need to welcome African-Americans into our party. Asian-Americans into our party. Latinos into our party. When the Republican party looks like the rest of America, we’ll win again."
That sounds like the right approach, especially after the GOP’s poor showing last November in every major demographic outside of white Americans. But during the Q&A session, Paul clarified what he meant by welcoming these groups into the party:
"…there are some people in California who don’t completely agree on all the cultural issues. I am socially conservative. I’m not going to change that. But I think the party can be big enough to allow people who don’t all agree on every issue. It’s not going to change who I am, or what I talk about, but I think we can be a big enough party to include people."
Translation: the Republican party welcomes your votes, but not your ideas. Perhaps African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans should feel special: the GOP is desperate enough that it will accept your votes even if you disagree with its policies.
Rand Paul acted on this flawed approach a few weeks ago in a disastrous appearance at Howard University in which he presumed to lecture African-Americans about their own history. Instead of trying to convince people that they should vote for conservatives, Republicans should try a new approach:
Silence the spin doctors.
Ask people what would make them consider voting for Republicans.
Become that party.
Robert Louis Stevenson once said, "I’ve a grand memory for forgetting."
So does Rand Paul. He forgets his ideal of limited government when pushing for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. He forgets the virtues of liberty when trying to prevent a woman from having control over her own reproductive decisions. And he forgets how government intervention has improved the lives of millions of African-Americans.
By proclaiming himself the heir of Reagan, Paul also forgets a legacy of Republican leaders more deserving of praise: Teddy Roosevelt, for his fierce protection of the environment. Dwight Eisenhower, for sending troops into Little Rock to enforce Brown v Board of Education. Richard Nixon, for passing laws for equal opportunity, workplace safety, and clean air and water.
Such leaders offer lessons for the party today as it struggles to broaden its appeal. Maybe it’s not too late for Rand Paul to unburden himself of a president whose legacy contradicts the very principles Paul claims to hold most dear.