Politics Q&A: Senator Rand Paul

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The Kentucky senator and son of Ron Paul talks about the Constitution, the Republican Party and his father's appeal to independent voters.

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Rand Paul, Republican senator from Kentucky, is the more politically savvy heir to his father's legacy of libertarian-tinged conservatism. He's campaigned for the presidential bid of his dad, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, even as many Paul-watchers wonder if Rand isn't the one more suited to the national spotlight. A recent interview in Rand Paul's Senate offices started with constitutional issues and proceeded to politics. Wearing black sneakers with his de rigueur Capitol Hill suit and tie, Paul talked about suing the Obama Administration, his father's path to victory (or lack thereof), and the other candidates' lack of true conservative bona fides. This interview has been condensed and edited.

You recently spoke on the Senate floor against the president's recent recess appointments. What in your view is the potential consequence of the president's action?

It takes a long time to go to court in our country and I think we will go to court. I'm signing on with an amicus to a group already suing the [National Labor Relations Board]. It will tie things up, because any decisions they make or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau makes will be challenged in court. This could go on for years, I would think.

The real problem I see of it is -- what really draws a stark picture for people -- is that he could do this for a Supreme Court justice. Now, he probably won't, because he knows all hell would break loose if he did. But this is the precedent. He gets to decide when we're in recess.

We were talking this morning about how there was no Democrat standing up [against this] and would [former West Virginia Sen.] Robert Byrd have stood up. We think Robert Byrd would have stood up and said, 'This is nonsense, to do that.' You need to have people within your own party that have the wherewithal to stand up to you. If a Republican does injustice, I'll be up on the floor saying the same thing.

Why don't you think there are any Democrats with you on this?

I don't know. It disappoints me. Because, see, earlier in the year, we took the president's own words when he ran for office, saying no president should unilaterally go to war without the authority of Congress, Congressional authorization. His words exactly. And not one Democrat voted to support those words. They see it as a partisan attack on the president, but to me, I would have done it if it had been Bush. I mean, because it's your words -- either stand by them or not. You shouldn't have one opinion when you're running and another when you're president.

The Democrats argue that it's the Republican Congress that has undermined the Constitution by keeping Congress artificially in session when it ought to be in recess.

There's like an 80-year precedent for the way it's been done. And the Democrats did it to George Bush to keep him from doing recess appointments, and George Bush didn't take the law into his own hands and just appoint people anyway. This president has gone above and beyond us to say, 'I decide.' That's the problem of allowing one person to decide when Congress is in recess.

It also really is about the checks and balances. The Senate, and Congress in general, has been losing its power for 100 years, but we lose it because we give it up. For example, all the stuff that we've given to regulatory agencies -- we gave it up. We let regulatory agencies write regulations that cost the economy $100 million or more, sometimes $1 billion or more, and we just gave it away. It's our fault. We gave it away. This is another thing. We're giving away the power to control advise and consent. We gave away the power to go to war after World War II. We need to get that back. It really shouldn't be just a partisan issue. There ought to be people on the other side, but they see it as support for their president, so they're unwilling to criticize him.

What about the argument that Republicans have obstructed the nomination process?

I don't know the statistics exactly, but I think we've voted on a bunch. Over half of our votes this year I think have been on nominations. We stopped [CFPB head Richard] Cordray and there might have been a circuit court judge, but we've only stopped one or two people out of hundreds.

But those are the ones that came up for votes. Aren't there more nominations being held up from even coming to a vote?

I don't think it's worse than the Democrats did under Bush.

Shouldn't the president, under the Constitution, be entitled to a vote on his nominees?

He gets to nominate, and then we go through the process. If people are very much outside the mainstream as judged by the majority of the Senate, or judged by 41 senators, then he doesn't get them. If it's fair or it's not fair, I can tell you there isn't any sense we've been holding things up. There's been a good flow of nominees.

We're signing onto a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of what the president has done, and I hope that does make it all the way to the Supreme Court. The health care [challenge], people dismissed it at first, said, 'Oh, that'll never go anywhere,' and now it's been upheld by several courts and [the Supreme Court has agreed to hear it].

Switching to politics, how is your dad's campaign going?

I think things are going pretty well. They've had a plan for long time to emphasize the smaller caucus states, to spend their money wisely and to accumulate delegates. I think he needs a breakthrough. He needs a victory.

What has your involvement been?

I traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire. I haven't been anywhere else. I've done some radio interviews -- that's easier for me, since I've got stuff to do here. We talk and I give unsolicited advice all the time. I'll chat with them on strategy and things. But really, the nitty gritty, the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day process, I don't have a lot to do with.

Do you think he's been well served by the people running his campaign?

Yeah, I think they've done a great job, actually. I think that what's really helped him this time is, because he's done well enough, they're now polling him against the president, and so you get all these people on conservative talk [radio and] TV discounting him, but [when] you poll him against the president, he's right at front of pack along with Romney in terms of competitiveness. CBS had a poll that had him beating President Obama among independents by 7 points. Because he's been included in all these polls, they've been able to measure and see the youth vote that he captures.

I think some of the Republicans in the race are starting to realize it might be a good thing to be nice to Ron Paul because he brings his people. He brings new people to the party. You don't win as a party unless you become a bigger party. You go to one of his rallies or you go to his headquarters, you see people of every socioeconomic level and of every race. Much more so than you see anywhere else. It's not uncommon to see someone with tattoos working in his office. Whereas you go to most Republican rallies, everybody's wearing a suit and tie and looks like they came from the Chamber of Commerce or from a cutout mold.

In a campaign where Republicans are desperate to nominate someone who will beat Obama, why don't more people give Ron Paul credit for the competitiveness that he shows in those polls?

Some people see that there's an appeal beyond the Republican primary, they just don't see a route to victory through the Republican primary. So some of that's justified. But I also think it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pundits say it over and over again [that he can't win], and it does hurt his numbers. Why would you want to go vote for someone who's got no chance, when the pundits say that? When you poll, Romney's had the best numbers against Obama over time, but Ron Paul's had the second-best numbers against Obama. Gingrich is abysmal. Poll Gingrich with women -- poll Gingrich in general! He's got, like, a 20 percent approval rating and like a 60 percent disapproval rating with the general public. No one with those kind of numbers has ever won anything.

Are you acknowledging your dad may not have a route to victory in the Republican primary?

He's got to start winning some primaries. We're about to go through a whole bunch at once. You can say things with more certainty once you get into March, the middle of march. They have more proportional primaries, too. What if you get to where somebody has 1,000 delegates, somebody has 700 delegates and Ron Paul has 300? Super Tuesday is the first week in March. I think after that you'll have 10 or 15 states done and then we can see where things are. But to win, he has to win some states.

Is this even about winning for him? Some have said he's just trying to get his message out.

Absolutely. You don't go into politics unless you want to win.

But he's made various comments about not seeing himself as a front-runner.

He has a very modest demeanor. He's different than everybody else. He never brags about [himself]. You never hear him say, 'I've done this, I've done that.' He also believes in sort of a different kind of presidency. He doesn't want a president who can do everything; he wants a president that has very limited powers. The idea of the Constitution is the powers would be spread equally among the branches. But he's not a cheerleader. You hear people up there saying, 'I'm gonna make him a one-term president!' and 'I'm gonna repeal Obamacare!' -- he just doesn't talk in those terms.

But absolutely, he wouldn't do this if he didn't think there was a path to victory and a path to winning. But you never know. You just have to do your best and get out there. He's doing pretty well considering he has less resources than Romney and the media at all turns discounting his chances. He's overcome quite a bit, and he really is developing a whole wing of the Republican Party and developing a whole new atmosphere for people who like some aspects of what Democrats stand for and some aspects of what Republicans stand for. That might be what an independent is -- people who like a little bit of each party but distrust both. And that's a lot of the people who support him and probably why he would do better as independent candidate than he does in either primary.

Isn't that the problem for Ron Paul, that he's not a natural fit in the Republican Party?

If you look historically, look at the people Republicans say they admire, the founding fathers believed in a very limited executive branch. They very much feared a king, and they wrote all kinds of rules to limit and disperse the power between the executive and the legislative. Most of the founders didn't even believe in a standing army. They believed in nonintervention, they believed in a policy of neutrality for the most part. So I think maybe you find there's a strong tradition. There definitely have been, even going back just to Reagan, people who believed certain things shouldn't be done in Washington, but left to the states. We've lost that. Think about it: Reagan wanted to eliminate the Department of Education. That was part of our policy platform from 1980 to 2000, and then George Bush comes in and doubles the size of the Department of Education with No Child Left Behind. Santorum supported it, Gingrich supported it, they all supported it. Ron Paul's the only one hearkening back to the Reagan platform for the Republican Party.

Newt Gingrich is saying he'll stay in the race all the way to the convention. Do you believe that?

I doubt it. I think once he starts losing a bunch, he will drop out. Once he loses Florida I don't know what states he's looking to. He's not on the ballot in Virginia, and I don't think he's on the ballot in Illinois either. There's no route to victory for him in the West. It's tough -- my dad does real well out there, but so does Romney. There's not room for anybody else, probably, in a lot of those Western states.

You don't seem very fond of Gingrich.

There are things to like about Newt Gingrich, but there are things that are polarizing about him also. A pollster recently that I was listening to said, if you're talking about public opinion toward an individual like disapproval ratings, in the beginning it's like water. Then it gels a little bit, and then eventually it's like concrete. If your disapproval rating just got high, you can change that, but if it's been that way for 15, 20 years, and independents hate you and women don't like you, it's hard to change that. I also think there's a little bit of a disingenuousness about him calling himself a Reagan conservative when Reagan was for eliminating the Department of Education and Newt Gingrich was for doubling it. Newt Gingrich was for Medicare Part D, the largest expansion of an entitlement program since the Great Society. He went around the country with Al Sharpton promoting the president's agenda on education. He sat with Nancy Pelosi talking about global warming and cap and trade. As recently as 2006, he made statements in favor of the individual mandate on health care. So for all of his complaining and clamoring about Romney being a moderate, Gingrich has been right there. I see really absolutely no difference with Romney ideologically.

If he wins the nomination, would you support him?

I've said I'll support whoever the nominee is.

And what about you -- are you planning on running for president?

Not now. I'm focused on helping my dad right now.

Image credit: Getty Images/Mark Wilson

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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