"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.