Rand Paul Plays It Safe in His RNC Speech

Under pressure to show loyalty to his party and to critique its heresies against libertarianism, he does a lot of the former, not much of the latter.

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Senator Rand Paul had one of the most difficult jobs of any speaker at the Republican National Convention. Offered a speaking slot in prime time, he faced pressure to prove himself a loyal partisan, an image he wants to cultivate to a point. "We can't take our toys and go home," he told his supporters earlier this week as they smarted from the deflated status of Congressman Ron Paul. "I think the best way to influence the party is to stay in the party, to make the party bigger and stronger." His long game depends on being able to influence fellow Republicans from the inside.

At the same time, his libertarian supporters, another key to his political future, are forever wary of being betrayed by a sellout, and uninclined to lend their time and money for someone who isn't delivering. Basically, Senator Paul has to retain a lot of supporters accustomed to the uncompromising purity and outspokenness of his father (the subject of a tribute video at the RNC extolling his refusal to compromise), but without being quite so pure, uncompromising or outspoken.

Needing to please his party on the one hand, and his core supporters on the other, Sen. Paul erred on the side of pleasing the party Wednesday with an on message speech. He attacked President Obama for his "You didn't build that" comment, in keeping with the GOP's major theme. He focused on subjects of agreement between libertarians and establishment Republicans.

And he eschewed opportunities to chide fellow Republicans. In the beginning of his speech, for example, he invoked James Madison and the notion of enumerated powers, as if Mitt Romney and many other Republicans are reliable champions of a severely limited federal government. And though Paul used inspirational immigrant stories to extol the American Dream, specifically invoking Vietnamese boat people, he didn't advocate for allowing more immigrants to come here legally.

He did nod to his supporters later in the speech, however subtly.

"Republicans and Democrats alike must slay their sacred cows," he stated. "Republicans must acknowledge that not every dollar spent on the military is necessary or well-spent, and Democrats must admit that domestic welfare and entitlements must be reformed." I'm glad he included that line. But asking Republicans to acknowledge that a little bit of military spending is wasted isn't enough. Sen. Paul himself favors deeper cuts to military spending than his speech suggests.

"Republicans and Democrats must replace fear with confidence, confidence that no terrorist, and no country, will ever conquer us if we remain steadfast to the principles of our Founding documents," Sen. Paul said. Were delegates in the hall aware that the GOP hasn't remained steadfast to those documents, and that Mitt Romney's avowed policies are deeply at odds with them?

If not Senator Paul didn't give them any hint.

"We have nothing to fear except our own unwillingness to defend what is naturally ours, our God-given rights. We have nothing to fear that should cause us to forget or relinquish our rights as free men and women," Sen. Paul said. "To thrive we must believe in ourselves again, and we must never -- never -- trade our liberty for any fleeting promise of security." That was his most courageous line of the night. And it's an important reminder, especially given the setting.

It got extended applause -- take that, John Yoo and Barack Obama.

All in all, I don't think much about the substance of Senator Paul's speech. As one of the libertarian leaning people whose support he must work to keep, and who he mostly ignored Wednesday, I am also unfazed. If you at all accept that Sen. Paul must make nice with partisan Republicans to grow his influence and advance liberty in the longer term, the RNC is the best possible place for him to focus on that task. It's a glorified week of propaganda, even if it is broadcast in prime time. Better to make nice here and give his party hell on the floor of the Senate, as Paul has done, when they transgress against civil liberties or cheer-lead for more foreign wars.

Part of me wanted Sen. Paul to stand up and denounce those transgressions, of course, but part of me didn't. I don't ever want him to soften his principled stands. But I do want someone in the GOP who, if less outspoken than his father, turns out to be more effective advancing his issues. Sen. Paul's supporters shouldn't judge him by tonight, they should judge him by his actions during this legislative session, and the next, and especially by his behavior if Mitt Romney wins. If he is as loyal then as he was tonight, there is no point in having Sen. Paul in the Senate. But if he uses influence gained tonight to rein in the executive branch under Romney?

That's a good trade.

As Matt Lewis put it on Twitter, "For those who fear the growing influence of libertarianism into the conservative movement, Rand Paul is much more dangerous than his dad." If he doesn't sell out, that is.

Stay tuned.

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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