Perhaps more than any Republican in his cohort, Sen. Rand Paul is known for sticking to his beliefs, no matter how controversial they may be.
But lately, reporters and civilians have been asking Paul uncomfortable questions about his past positions. In response, Paul isn't claiming that he's had an honest change of heart or "evolved" — he's saying he never held a different position in the first place. Or he's just not saying anything at all.
Instead of taking President Obama's "evolving" approach, Paul has vehemently insisted that he has not, in fact, changed his mind on issues; the media is just warping his record.
Still, the internal logic of Paul's politics has become difficult to keep track of. In the past week, Paul has been confronted with three important issues — Israel, the Civil Rights Act, and immigration — and fumbled.
On immigration, Paul insists he does not support amnesty. His definition of "immigration reform" means beefing up border security, expanded work visas for tech workers, and making English "the official language of all documents and contracts."
Paul also hasn't signed onto a Republican proposal to give legal status to Dreamers who enlist in the military. "This is a complicated part of immigration reform. Do I have sympathy if you served in our military and we ought to find a place for you in our country? Absolutely," he said on a conference call in June. "But do I want to send a signal to everybody in Mexico that if you come and join our military, you get to be a citizen? That's a bad signal."
Paul is sending mixed signals, too. The Partnership for a New American Economy, a pro-immigration group run by Grover Norquist and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has touted Paul as a supporter — though the word "reform" means very different things for them. Norquist's group wants tightened border security, but also supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S., otherwise known as Dreamers.
As Shane Goldmacher writes:
The awkward scene was a visual reminder of the political tightrope Paul is trying to walk as he woos the tea-party base of the GOP, raising money for a conservative firebrand like King, at the same time as he pitches an inclusionary message of a Republican Party that he says must expand its appeal to win future national elections.
That tightrope is becoming shakier every day, as more and more scrutiny is on Paul ahead of 2016.
Aid to Israel
In 2011, Paul proposed ending federal aid to Israel as part of a slash-and-burn federal budget. But on Monday, speaking with a Yahoo News reporter, Paul denied ever offering such a proposal.
"I haven't really proposed that in the past," Paul told Yahoo's Chris Moody. "We've never had a legislative proposal to do that. You can mistake my position, but then I'll answer the question. That has not been a position — a legislative position — we have introduced to phase out or get rid of Israel's aid. That's the answer to that question. Israel has always been a strong ally of ours and I appreciate that. I voted just this week to give money — more money — to the Iron Dome, so don't mischaracterize my position on Israel."
But if you're going to accuse a reporter of "mistaking" your positions, you'd better be prepared to back that up. Compare what he said Monday to what the newly elected Paul said about Israel in 2011: "I think they're an important ally, but I also think that their per capita income is greater than probably three-fourths of the rest of the world," he told ABC then. "Should we be giving free money or welfare to a wealthy nation? I don't think so."
Dave Weigel also has a good rundown of all the times Paul has called for cutting aid to Israel. By trying to mentally erase his past positions, Paul is only hurting himself and potentially alienating the same reporters he should be trying to woo.
Civil Rights Act
Paul, more than any other Republican considering a 2016 bid, has worked to reach out to black voters. He's working with Sen. Cory Booker across the aisle to help ex-felons find jobs, he's proposed sentencing reform, and he's spoken to predominantly black audiences at Howard University and the National Urban League.
But he's also been haunted by his record on the Civil Rights Act. In 2010, Paul took issue with the section of the act that prohibited private-business owners from discriminating on the basis of race. "I think it's a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant," Paul said at the time. "But, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership."
Paul reversed his stance soon after he started getting flak for the statement. On MSNBC last week, Paul insisted he had "never been opposed" to the Civil Rights Act. Instead of clarifying his stance and admitting that his free-market values at one time trumped support for civil-rights policy, he took the MSNBC host to task for the network's perceived bias.
"I've been attacked by half a dozen people on your network trying to say I'm opposed to the Civil Rights Act and somehow now I've changed," Paul said. "I'm not willing to engage with people who are misrepresenting my viewpoint on this."
But he did change! Granted, he changed back in 2010, but taking such consternation at this only makes more trouble for himself. In an attempt to prove the trueness of his moral compass, Paul only inspires more questions. If he were to say, "Yes, I've evolved — what of it?" the so-called "partisan cranks and hacks" in the media would have little reason to reprimand him. But Paul isn't one to back down from a good argument about semantics.
Having a change of heart (or political calculus) doesn't have to be bad. True, American voters like their candidates to be as pure as the driven snow. "Flip-flopping" has become a derogatory term no matter how noble a candidate's reason for changing his or her mind may have been. But misleading voters about your past record could hurt even more.
As it stands, onlookers, like Queen Gertrude, may find the senator doth protest too much.
Update, 2:30 p.m.: A spokesperson for Paul responded with this comment about Israel, saying Paul has never "targeted Israel's aid." That is true — Paul's 2011 budget proposal would have cut federal aid to countries across the board, not just to Israel.
"Senator Rand Paul has never proposed any legislation that targeted Israel's aid and just last week voted to continue and increase funding to the State of Israel. Sen. Paul is a strong supporter of the Jewish state of Israel," the spokesperson said in an email to National Journal. "Sen. Paul's position was exactly what Prime Minister Netanyahu said to Congress on July 10, 1996 and May 24, 2011 — Israel will be better off when it does not have to count on anyone else for its protection."
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