As Rand Paul launches a bid for the White House, his strategy is uncertain. (Will he court the business community, evangelicals, or both?) So are his prospects. (How will voters receive him?) But his candidacy makes one thing perfectly clear: The GOP primary will now include vigorous debate about how to wage the War on Terrorism.
Paul's official announcement Tuesday advanced two critiques:
1) Abroad, the Republican Party has been too quick to embark on nation building and insufficiently skeptical of government's ability to perform competently.
2) At home, the GOP must repudiate civil-liberties violations instituted in the name of counterterrorism. As he put it, "Warrantless searches of Americans’ phones and computer records are un-American ... I say that your phone records are yours. I say the phone records of law-abiding citizens are none of their damn business."
These critiques are perfectly consistent with the beliefs of many Republican voters, even if they're a striking departure from the views of the GOP establishment in Washington, D.C., where neoconservatism and deference to the NSA and FBI prevail. They'll inform how Paul attacks opponents and how he is attacked, especially during debates that will be ideologically broader for his presence. And he won't be forced to change his message if he makes it to the general election, especially if he meets Hillary Clinton, a Weekly Standard Democrat.
These positions are what make a Paul candidacy appealing to me. As Election 2016 unfolds, I'll keep asking myself, would electing him reduce the chances of a disastrous war of choice that destabilizes a country, kills thousands of Americans, ends many more lives abroad, ultimately costs trillions when veterans benefits are tallied, and leaves the world no better off than it was before?
And is electing him the best chance to end mass surveillance?
I am not yet convinced of either proposition. But I could be convinced of either or both. I might also conclude that he would rather compromise on those positions and win than stick to them and lose, in which case I'll regard his candidacy as pointless.
Time will tell.
Many other Americans will judge Paul based on their impression of his domestic agenda, especially the part that relates to jobs and the future of the economy, despite the dearth of evidence that the president does much to determine those outcomes.
The Republican of my fantasies would agree with her Democratic rivals that the U.S. economy is rife with powerful actors abusing their influence to rig the system in their favor. "Where I depart from my friends on the left," she would say, "is how to react. Progressives believe that these pervasive injustices are inevitable and best remedied with aggressive redistribution. I favor a strong safety net that affords everyone a credible path toward a fresh start and future advancement. With that caveat, I'm less interested in redistribution than aggressively reforming all the ways that wealthy Americans accrue ill-gotten gains: Down with Wall Street bailouts, rent-seeking, cronyism, credentialism, legacy admissions, and a tax code complicated enough for the ultra-wealthy to game it. If you earn wealth by creating value, I think you owe no more than your fair share of taxes. If you accrue your wealth by gaming the system you'd better not vote for me, because I intend to make America into a country where mooching one's way to wealth is no longer possible. And here's specifically how:___."
Unfortunately, no Republican or Democrat will ever give that speech, not complete with specific reforms, because they all rely on people who've gamed the system. Campaign contributions are frequently a targeted attempt at system gaming!
Paul nods toward an important part of the position I want taken. "Many Americans though are being left behind. The reward of work seems beyond their grasp," he said. "Under the watch of both parties, the poor seem to get poorer and the rich get richer. Trillion-dollar government stimulus packages have only widened the income gap. Politically connected cronies get taxpayer dollars by the hundreds of millions and poor families across America continue to suffer." So what to do?
Here are the next lines of his speech:
I have a different vision, an ambitious vision, an ambitious vision, a vision that will offer opportunity to all Americans, especially those who have been left behind. My plan includes economic freedom zones to allow impoverished areas like Detroit, West Louisville, Eastern Kentucky to prosper by leaving more money in the pockets of the people who live there. Can you imagine what a billion-dollar stimulus could do for Detroit or for Appalachia?
I’m convinced that most Americans want to work. I want to free up the great engine of American prosperity. I want to see millions of Americans back at work. In my vision for America, we’ll bring back manufacturing jobs that pay well.
We’ll dramatically lower the tax on American companies that wish to bring their profits home. More than $2 trillion in American profit currently sits overseas. In my vision for America, new highways and bridges will be built across the country, not by raising your taxes, but by lowering the tax to bring this American profit home.
Could any president get "a billion-dollar stimulus" and a dramatic manufacturing tax cut through Congress in a way that doesn't just end up funneling money to special interests? That is unlikely. And even if these measures succeeded, their wisdom as tweaks to economic policy would not constitute a remedy for "politically connected cronies" getting millions of taxpayer dollars. If a candidate isn't willing to name specific cronyism he intends to attack, preferring to hand wave at big government generally, my operating assumption is that he's insufficiently motivated to fight the interests who want to keep leeching.
I do believe Paul when he says he'll fight to make the criminal-justice system less unjust because he has already focused on that vital, under-appreciated work as a legislator. His declaration, "I see an America where criminal justice is applied equally and any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed," could've been better phrased. If a racial group is disproportionately incarcerated for murder in 2017 I trust Paul won't push for the laws against it to be repealed! But rooting racism out of the criminal justice system is an urgent, overdue project, and a promise to take it on seems to be what he was trying to communicate.
There are, finally, those parts of the speech that remind me why I'd never want to run for office: I'd really hate saying the pandering nonsense that partisans want to hear.
Here is one such passage:
Without question we must defend ourselves and American interests from our enemies, but until we name the enemy, we can’t win the war. The enemy is radical Islam.
You can’t get around it.
This is red meat thrown to the people Paul is worried about losing on foreign policy. It buys into the absurd idea that failure to name the enemy is what ails us.
President Obama has targeted and killed radical Islamists while naming the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS. He has put out propaganda meant to counter Islamist radicalism too. One can praise his strategy or criticize it, as I've done many times, but contra Fox News, Obama hasn't succeeded or failed based on his refusal to specifically declare the U.S. to be at war with a particular abstraction any more than victory in World War II depended on Franklin Roosevelt verbally declaring us at to be war with "fascism" rather than Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. If Al Qaeda and ISIS were defeated, the threat of terrorism receded, and there were still ideological Islamists in Arab countries as there are still communists in Russia and China, would Paul think we need to be at war with them?
If not, he should try harder to find pandering lines that don't entrench flawed foreign policy ideas while taking up time that could be used on more potent critiques. The "he won't say radical Islam" attack is lazy. He plainly avoids the word Islamist because he doesn't want the world's Muslims to mistakenly think he has declared war on them when we is actually fighting a tiny fraction of their coreligionists. The notion that this verbal tactic proves Obama doesn't understand the nature of the enemy is dumb. Proving that would require different work, and isn't a course any Republican will follow to a defensible end, because Obama seems to understand the enemy much better than the GOP's base.
The full text of Paul's announcement speech is here. If the average Republican announcement speech is a D and the Gettysburg Address is an A, I give it a B. Avoiding dumb occupations, safeguarding civil liberties, and reforming the criminal-justice system are issues of huge importance. Paul credibly distinguishes himself on all three. But on many issues his arguments could be more succinct, coherent, and rigorous, and while Republican primary voters probably demand some inane pandering it can be achieved with more defensible rhetoric. Of course, an announcement speech is a beginning, campaigns evolve over time, and Paul's will not be an exception. Stay tuned to see if it gets better or worse.