The grand hall where Sen. Rand Paul spoke on Thursday was festooned with six gold chandeliers, velvet drapes, tapestries commemorating the great conquerors of the world—Magellan, Columbus, Vespucci, Cortez—and, covering the majority of the back wall, an enormous American flag.
In what was billed as a "fireside chat" with TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington during Lincoln Labs' Reboot Congress conference at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Paul broached a wide range of topics, including one he was not too thrilled to talk about—vaccines. There was no fireplace, or visible fire, in the room.
Republicans across the board are racing to court the tech sector—both for its dynamism and its funding—ahead of 2016. Thursday's conference gave Paul a shot at showing why he stands apart from the ever-growing pack, and why his brand of libertarian politics has the most to offer Silicon Valley.
When Arrington told Paul he had a question about vaccines, Paul quipped back, "You don't want to be shushed, do you?" Arrington quickly ingratiated himself. "I loved that, by the way," he said, referring to Paul's contentious CNBC interview earlier this month.
Paul went on to defend his original comments to CNBC, in which he said, "I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines."
"I didn't allege there is a connection," Paul said on Thursday. "I said I have heard of people who have said there is a connection."
Aside from briefly playing Gaffe Police, Arrington stuck to the techno-libertarian talking points of the conference, including the USA Patriot Act, net neutrality, and bitcoin.
Arrington, a libertarian, asked Paul what he thought about the idea of replacing the U.S. welfare program with a basic income policy that would give a sum of money to every American—an idea that has tantalized both libertarian and left-leaning economists. Paul brushed off the idea.
"I think that we sort of limit ourselves if we're talking about the minimum we want people to have," Paul said. "We should minimize what the government does—that's the nonproductive sector—and we should maximize the productive sector."
On net neutrality, Paul said the government should not regulate Internet service providers as utilities because it stifles innovation. Paul noted that the tunnels in New York City could likely accommodate "hundreds" of cables from different ISPs, which could spur competition.
"The way to fix this and to correct this is to open up competition within those monopolies," Paul said. "Why grant monopoly licenses?"
When asked how rural conservatives can find common ground with urban liberals, Paul noted that last year, he gave virtually the same speech about privacy at the Conservative Political Action Conference and the University of California (Berkeley). He held that fact up as evidence of a "leave me alone" coalition between Democrats and Republicans.
"There is a unifying belief in personal liberty, whether it's gun ownership or that your Visa bill shouldn't be read by the government," Paul said.
And, as in any interview with Paul these days, 2016 was not far out of sight.
"You are running for president, right?" Arrington asked him.
"Maybe," Paul said, adding that he will make a decision in March or April. "We're heading in that direction; we just haven't made the final decision."
But Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz, who speaks later this afternoon, aren't the only potential Republican presidential candidates looking to curry favor with the tech sector. Jeb Bush Jr. was also in attendance, as was Danny Diaz, a newly hired adviser to Jeb Bush's Right to Rise PAC.
Paul may have been one of the first well-known Republicans to recognize the political power of Silicon Valley and harness it, but he's hardly the only one anymore.
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