LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Rand Paul was talking with University of Louisville medical students when one of them tossed him a softball. "The majority of med students here today have a comprehensive exam tomorrow. I'm just wondering if you have any last-minute advice."
"Actually, I do," said the ophthalmologist-turned-senator, who stays sharp (and keeps his license) by doing pro bono eye surgeries during congressional breaks. "I never, ever cheated. I don't condone cheating. But I would sometimes spread misinformation. This is a great tactic. Misinformation can be very important."
He went on to describe studying for a pathology test with friends in the library. "We spread the rumor that we knew what was on the test and it was definitely going to be all about the liver," he said. "We tried to trick all of our competing students into over-studying for the liver" and not studying much else.
"So, that's my advice," he concluded. "Misinformation works."
Paul's little riff had the students laughing hard. And it was amusing—but also amazing. Why would he set himself up with an anecdote like that? He knew reporters were in the lecture hall. He's also well aware that watchdogs are compiling a growing file of evidence that he plays loose with the facts. He had offered a few examples to the students that very afternoon.
"Under Obamacare and the current evolution of things, we have 18,000 diagnostic codes. We're going to 144,000 diagnostic codes," Paul told them. It wasn't the first time he had implied that the number of codes—complete with seemingly absurd categories for injuries from macaws, lampposts, and burning water skis—was exploding as a result of the Affordable Care Act. But fact-checkers across the spectrum, from the conservative website The Blaze to USA Today to the liberal site ThinkProgress, had thoroughly debunked that notion months earlier. As Paul must know, the new diagnostic codes were approved by the Bush Administration and have nothing to do with Obamacare.
The students laughed about the macaws and again when Paul said someone making $30,000 a year would not be able to afford insurance under the new law "if it's going to cover pregnancy to sex change to lap dancer." The administration has said plainly that policies do not have to cover sex-change surgery. As for lap dancing, well, that apparently was Paul's imagination going somewhere unusual.
Those few minutes on stage encapsulated the promise and the peril of a brash and politically talented party crasher already deep into preparations for a 2016 presidential race. Paul's positions—a combination of conservative, libertarian, and idiosyncratic—have the potential to excite and enlarge the Republican Party. His informal, engaging personality could attract the young voters Republicans need to survive. Indeed, he could grow into a Reaganesque game changer for his party—if he does not end up a victim of his own affinity for misinformation.
This son of former Representative Ron Paul has inherited, or at least appropriated, his father's ability to seduce unconventional and alienated voters. Part of that is due to his policy positions, which are attractive because they sound easy to accomplish. ("Detroit has 50,000 feral dogs, thousands of abandoned houses, and I can guaran-damn-tee you, people in Detroit don't want to send any more money to Egypt.") Part of it is his style, which is casual and in the moment. ("So when I was in college … I never drank any beer or smoked any pot. Oh, actually, no, no, that's Mike Lee's story! I'm stealing Mike Lee's story!")
The overall performance is entertaining and highly relatable, and there are some policy underpinnings to go with it. Paul wins with college kids by supporting states' right to legalize marijuana and gay marriage. He wins with black voters by opposing mandatory drug sentences and promoting charter schools. And he wins with women by ignoring Pentagon brass to support better protections for rape victims in the military.
But it's on foreign policy and national security that Paul could transform the GOP. His battles to curb military forays and foreign aid, and his drive to restrict U.S. surveillance, reach a broad, diverse cross-section of angry, wary, and worried Americans. The Kentucky senator's old-fashioned, 13-hour filibuster—forcing the Obama Administration to say it wouldn't use drones to kill U.S. citizens on U.S. soil—cemented his position in the national political-celebrity spotlight. Starting that night with his #StandWithRand hashtag on Twitter, he rode a wave of public anger all the way to his high-profile opposition to involvement in Syria, declaring there was "no clear national security connection" to the United States.
Perhaps most important for Republicans judging Paul's 2016 viability and his potential to turn enthusiastic fans at rallies into GOP votes at the polls is this: At a time when Americans despise the notion of more foreign entanglements, he has somehow made President Obama and his Democrats look like interventionist hawks. "The thing that could transform our country and transform the youth vote and transform a lot of votes would be if, all of a sudden, the Democrats become the party of war. I think they really essentially are now," Paul said in an interview. Young people "fight all the wars," he said, and might look to the GOP "if there were a Republican Party that were more reluctant to go to war."
This is not to say Paul is a perfect candidate in the eyes of young, minority, and female Americans—far from it. He is firmly opposed to abortion and has introduced a bill giving fertilized eggs the same rights as people. He backs drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And he has an exceedingly cramped view of what the government should be doing. A proposal he released this year to balance the budget in five years would eliminate the Commerce, Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development departments; turn Medicaid and food stamps into block grants; add private options to Medicare and Social Security; and repeal the Affordable Care Act.
That minimalist theory of government would be a hard sell even to voters who tell pollsters they think government is doing too much. Asked if there's anything the government should mandate, for example, Paul said, "The government should prevent violence .… They should enforce contracts. They should prevent fraud. But I don't think the government ought to mandate behavior outside of violence."
What does that mean in practice? Nothing that would appeal to liberals or even moderates, as Paul is aware. He told the medical students, "There's a philosophic debate which often gets me in trouble," then waded into it anyway, saying he doesn't believe health care is a right. "I think we as physicians have an obligation, as Christians we have an obligation, to our fellow man. I really believe that, and it's a deeply held belief," he said. "But I don't think you have a right to my labor. You don't have a right to anybody else's labor. I mean, food's pretty important. Do you have a right to food, water? As humans, yes, we have an obligation to give people water, to give people food, to give people health care. But it's not a right."
It's a classic libertarian view, delivered by a short, unassuming guy in khakis and scuffed boots. And, by all appearances, it's an honest reflection of what he believes in and would pursue if he were in the White House. If he were commander in chief, sworn to protect the nation, he said, he'd be willing to live by the restrictions he wants to impose on other presidents. "It's everything that I stand for," Paul said with a disarming straightforwardness that is as much a part of his presentation as his jokes.