POLITICS JUNE 17, 2013
It was the first time in recent memory that the Iowa GOP Lincoln Day Dinner sold out nearly two weeks in advance, and it was on the strength of its headliner, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who, in turn, was invited on the strength of his 13-hour filibuster against the Obama administration’s use of drones. During the happy hour at a small Cedar Rapids hotel, local donors stood in line to have their pictures taken with Paul, almost completely ignoring their own congressmen, Representative Steve King and Senator Chuck Grassley. They had come to see Paul, and he got a standing ovation before he even started talking.
Paul began in stand-up mode, describing a recent trip to New York in which he had driven by the Federal Reserve—the crowd booed on cue—to find it blocked by police cars. “We go up to the police, and we ask what’s going on, and they say the Federal Reserve has been robbed. And we said, really?!” Paul said, his voice nearly cracking in mock disbelief. “They said, ‘Yeah, but we caught the thieves. They got in front of the safe, they had the big safe open, but they were perplexed. They were flummoxed. They didn’t know what to do with minus sixteen trillion dollars!’ ”
The audience roared—which was to be expected, since they were, as Paul himself joked, “an easy crowd.” His father, Ron Paul, the libertarian Quixote, who famously preached a return to the gold standard and wrote a book called End the Fed, had come in third in the state’s presidential caucuses last year. Rand’s timing, too, was fortuitous: That day, the attendees were buzzing about the news that the IRS had apologized for picking on the kinds of conservative grassroots groups that make up the Paul family base.
In fact, in the months since Rand Paul’s blockbuster filibuster, the news cycle has handed him gift after gift after gift. Not long after the IRS revelations came the Department of Justice’s aggressive pursuit of national security leaks to the Associated Press. Then news broke that the National Security Agency was dredging up massive amounts of telephone data from millions of Americans on a daily basis. Paul quickly threatened to bring a class action lawsuit against the agency. This is a moment tailored for Rand Paul, more than for Marco Rubio or Chris Christie, or anyone else in the potential Republican 2016 lineup.
And yet, in Iowa, Paul wasn’t completely content with easy applause. He didn’t even mention the IRS. What he really wanted to talk about, he told the crowd, “is immigration.” Earlier, King and Grassley had sounded defiant, nativist tones, condemning the moderate legislation suggested by the Senate’s Gang of Eight. Paul, however, voiced his disagreement and laid out his own proposals to reform work visas, secure the border, and legalize the migrants that are already here. The room grew noticeably quieter. “I also think that, as a party, we need to grow bigger,” he said to an audience that was entirely white, save for a lone Sudanese immigrant. “We’re an increasingly diverse nation, and I think we do need to reach out to other people that don’t look like us, don’t wear the same clothes, that aren’t exactly who we are.” The GOP, he said, needed to be more respectful. By this point, the crowd was silent.
Later, Paul told me that it was a good silence, the silence of people listening. “The Democrats have done a better job of being a party of people from all walks of life, and we need to do that,” he said.1 “We need to have working-class folks, we need to have people with earrings, nose rings, tattoos, ties, without ties, ponytails, no ponytails. One of the things where my dad was successful, was when you went to his rallies, you saw people from all walks of life.” And by the time Paul was done speaking that night in Cedar Rapids, by the time he showed that appealing to minorities was, also, a matter of utility, a strategy to once again become “the dominant national party,” the crowd was again up on its feet, hooting and applauding.
When Paul launched his political career three years ago, he was viewed in much the same way as his father, or, as Senator John McCain once called him, a “wacko bird.” He was identified with the same marginal issues (drug legalization, neo-isolationism) and the same marginal constituencies (anarchists, goldbugs). But this year, Paul has emerged as a serious candidate. He has started actively campaigning for the nomination earlier than any of the other Republicans mulling a run. Already, he has racked up multiple meet-and-greets, dinners, and coffee gatherings in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. While his father may have been an also-ran, national polls show Rand Paul as one of the top contenders for the GOP nomination. In private, Paul has been meeting with key GOP power brokers, including the Koch brothers, and he has courted techies at Silicon Valley companies like Google, Facebook, and eBay. “We’re doing something that Ron never did; we’re reaching out to major donors,” says a Paul adviser. “Not everyone is giving us money, but there’s definitely some flirtation going on.” According to this adviser, in the last six months, RAND PAC, Paul’s national political operation, has raised more than a million dollars.2 “He’s very politically talented,” says a former senior official at the Republican National Committee. “He is absolutely a contender.”
In his efforts to court new audiences, or to bring what he calls “tough love” to friendly ones, Rand Paul is aiming for a bigger, broader base than Ron Paul—or, for that matter, Mitt Romney—ever captured. But though he has staked out more moderate or traditionally Republican positions than his father, at his core, Rand retains the same pre–New Deal vision of hyper-minimalist government and isolationist foreign policy. In other words, Paul has managed to take the essence of his father’s radical ideology—more radical than that of any modern presidential candidate—and turn it into a plausible campaign for the Republican nomination.
Going into the Spring of 2009, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson was a favorite local son. That year, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader and the state’s political godfather, persuaded Senator Jim Bunning to make way for a more dynamic candidate and urged Grayson to run for the seat. Grayson seemed to be a lock for the Republican nomination—his main competition was an ophthalmologist in the western part of the state.
Grayson had heard that Ron Paul’s son was living in Bowling Green, but he’d never come across him in Kentucky’s political circles. “I don’t think many people thought of him as a serious candidate,” says Ronnie Ellis, a veteran Kentucky political observer. “He was treated by the press as an oddity.” After all, Paul had announced his candidacy on “The Rachel Maddow Show,” a bizarre move for a GOP primary. He was no good on the stump, rambling about government sins without the grease of jokes or platitudes. So Grayson and his team assumed that Rand was just a younger Ron, and, accordingly, ignored him. “We made a huge mistake,” says Les Fugate, then Grayson’s chief political aide. “That gave him five months to define himself.”
The magnitude of that miscalculation soon became clear. Paul tapped into his father’s national grassroots network, raising half a million dollars in a one-day “money bomb.”3 Thanks to his work on his father’s campaigns, he had relationships with national conservative media that Grayson lacked. Most important, he proved adept at harnessing the anti-establishment anger that had just spawned the Tea Party. Paul unleashed ads linking Grayson to the mess in Washington—“a message that stuck,” Fugate says. Two weeks before the primary, Grayson ran an ad in which McConnell, who is more feared than loved in Kentucky, declared that he needed Trey Grayson at his side in Congress. “We never will know this for sure, but that ad goes up, it’s our final ad, and then, boom, Rand goes through the roof and beats me by twenty points,” Grayson says. “We underestimated him.”
Jack Conway, Paul’s Democratic opponent, was next to be ambushed, mistaking Paul’s unorthodox style for electoral unviability. That spring, Paul again appeared on Maddow’s show, where she asked about his recent statement that one of the Civil Rights Act’s core provisions—desegregating private businesses—was unconstitutional. Instead of vowing his total support for the landmark legislation, Paul engaged Maddow in a philosophical debate over the hierarchy of rights.4 Democrats labeled him a racist, a charge that has dogged Paul ever since. A few months later, GQ discovered that, during Paul’s college days at Baylor, he had belonged to a secret society called the NoZe Brotherhood. Once, Paul and a NoZe buddy had apparently gotten high, tied up a female friend, tried to get her to smoke pot, then took her to the countryside and encouraged her to bow down to their god, “Aqua Buddha.” The story was devastating within Paul’s inner circle—especially to his wife, Kelley, who hadn’t known of the episode—and Conway ran an ad calling Paul an idolater.
One person who did not underestimate Paul was McConnell, who had thrown his machine behind the upstart right after the primary. “McConnell was very clear that it was all in the past,” says Jesse Benton, Paul’s campaign manager at the time. “He worked the phones for us, raised money. There were old-school Republicans who had been skeptical of Rand Paul; McConnell called them and brought them over to our side.” He even had his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, offer a shoulder to Kelley Paul during the Aqua Buddha debacle.
And Paul, harnessing the Tea Party’s rage, succeeded in steering the debate away from his stumbles and making the election a referendum on fiscal policy. After he beat Conway by eleven points, McConnell kept Paul close. He got him an office near his own and placed him on the Foreign Relations Committee. “The perception is McConnell fears him,” says a Republican Senate staffer.
In the Senate, Paul gained a reputation as an eccentric. Staffers often saw him wandering alone into the cafeteria, buying his own coffee, getting his own lunch—which, they noted, was not very senatorial. Nor was his reputation for reading every page of every bill. He wrote legislation in his own, Paulian way. He introduced a budget that would have eviscerated the Departments of Transportation, Energy, State, and Commerce; the Environmental Protection Agency; the Food and Drug Administration; and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It would have entirely defunded the Departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Government Printing Office. His amendment to the Parental Consent Act warned that psychiatrists might “label a person’s disagreement with the psychiatrist’s political beliefs a mental disorder.”5 He authored a bill to legalize interstate traffic in unpasteurized milk. One amendment would have nullified the congressional authorization to invade Iraq; another sought “to end mailbox use monopoly.” He also offered a triad of bills intended to make senators more diligent: the Read the Bills Act, the Write the Laws Act, and the One Subject at a Time Act. None of these measures made it to a vote. When the Foreign Relations Committee introduced a bill condemning North Korea’s nuclear tests, Paul insisted on language explicitly stating that it didn’t authorize the use of force. McCain was livid: The act was already nonbinding, and he felt Paul was mocking the process.
He wasn’t; he was mastering it. His advisers talk of McConnell as Paul’s “political father,” right up there with Ron. “He has taught Rand how power politics work,” one of these advisers said. “It’s what his father couldn’t be a mentor in.” But Paul has taken McConnell’s methods to the next level. McConnell, says a staffer with the Senate Democratic leadership, routinely slows down Senate business, but “has always done it subtly.” Paul, on the other hand, uses delays as a public-relations tool: His drone filibuster effectively turned Senate rules into a 13-hour presidential campaign ad. “Procedurally, the way he operates is hostage-taking,” says a Republican Senate staffer. “What Paul has done is basically say, ‘If I don’t get my way, nobody is going to get anything. I’m going to hold up everything until I get my way.’” Often, this means forcing a vote on one of his amendments, like a proposal to end foreign aid “to countries that burn our flag,” such as Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan. When this happens, “all his colleagues leave the floor cursing his name,” says the Republican staffer. “This isn’t the way you do business here.” Other senators, including Maine’s Susan Collins, were furious at Paul after PACs associated with him attacked their positions on gun control. These ads, says the Democratic staffer, are “a cardinal sin.”
Because none of Paul’s measures ever pass, it is easy to dismiss him as a grandstander. “He’s essentially a non-entity as a legislator,” says the Democratic staffer. But Paul isn’t interested in an illustrious Senate career; he’s using the Senate as a platform to launch something far bigger. The kooky legislation? Perfect messaging to the base. Refusing to play by the Senate’s clubby rules? Exactly what the Tea Party sent him to Washington for. “His ideas are not brilliant, but he has an understanding of where the country is,” says the Republican staffer.
The biggest test of Paul’s larger ambitions is his relationship with the Republican establishment. If he wants to win the nomination, he needs the party’s power brokers; if he wants to keep his Tea Party credibility, he can’t appear too cozy with them. Many in the traditional conservative establishment—particularly the foreign policy hawks—have been wary of Paul, but they have come to recognize, and fear, his growing power. “I have to give him credit for political entrepreneurship,” says Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, describing Paul’s tactics as “demagogic.” “I think [the Republican establishment is] nervous about him; that’s the one thing about him I kind of like,” Kristol adds. “They think he’s got some real clout out there with the grassroots, which is why I’d say they’ve bent over backwards to be nice to him.”
Since the emergence of the Tea Party, there have been plenty of politicians who have rocketed to sudden stardom, but only Paul has managed to leverage his popularity into actual institutional power. His drone filibuster forced the Department of Justice to issue a formal response, earned him the White House’s grudging respect—“at least the guy actually did it,” one official told me—and significantly moved public opinion on the issue. Meanwhile, his hard-line fiscal and anti-government views have gained growing traction within the GOP. “The party is more libertarian than it used to be,” says Grayson, now the director of the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School. “Clearly there’s more talk of reducing the deficit, and Rand is one of the leaders of this movement. It’s fair to give him a share of that credit.” During the immigration debate, Paul has for the first time talked openly about his newfound clout, referring to himself as “a bridge between the House and the Senate.” “If they don’t listen to me, they make a mistake,” he has said of his Senate colleagues.
But perhaps Paul’s biggest coup is the influence he has gained over McConnell. The Senate minority leader faces a tough reelection bid in 2014—his poll numbers in Kentucky have been inversely proportional to Paul’s rising ones—and he has found that his state’s Republican apparatus is being slowly converted into a bastion of Paulism. It is no coincidence that, last fall, McConnell hired Benton, Paul’s political guru, to run his campaign. “McConnell realized that he can’t get reelected without Rand Paul’s support,” says a Senate staffer.
Other Tea Party politicians have rocketed to stardom, but only Rand Paul has leveraged it into institutional power.
And so lately, McConnell’s calculations have noticeably tilted toward keeping Paul happy. “McConnell has moved toward Rand Paul more than Rand Paul has moved toward McConnell,” says John David Dyche, McConnell’s biographer. McConnell has thrown his support behind Paul’s efforts to legalize hemp production, both in Kentucky and nationally. He joined Paul’s drone filibuster and threatened to vote against the nomination of John Brennan for CIA chief. And he has changed how he manages the factions within the Republican caucus. “He used to do a good job bridging the divide ... but he can’t do that anymore, so there’s basically no leader over there because there needs to be no daylight between him and Rand Paul, whatsoever, for the next two years,” says the Senate staffer. “You can make a case,” says the Democratic leadership staffer, “that he’s the most powerful Senator in the Republican caucus.”
At a Tea Party event in Louisville, I sat down with Paul and asked him to explain his theory of government’s proper role. “What the Constitution says,” he told me curtly. “The Constitution has about 19 enumerated powers; that’s what it should do. Primary among those, at the federal level, is national defense, and that’s the primary function of what the government should be doing.” As always, Paul wore a red penny on his lapel, a Tea Party invocation of the national debt.6 He continued: “There are other things that we’ve been doing for quite a while, and what I would say is that we try to make them as efficient as possible. Things like Social Security and Medicare need to be made solvent.”
This seemed to be a departure from his father, who refused to accept Medicare and Medicaid in his private practice because he deemed it “stolen money.” But when I asked Paul to delineate the differences between them, he bristled. “I don’t think it’s really that useful to go into that,” he shot back. “I’ve got two years of voting and three or four years of speaking now, so if you people want to noodle out differences, it’s fine, but I don’t think it’s particularly useful for me to.”
That noodling, it turns out, produces a complicated picture. On one hand, Rand seems to hold more moderate positions than his father. At a meeting with evangelicals in Iowa, for instance, someone asked if he, like Ron, believes in legalizing drugs. Rand was quick to reassure the group. “I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot,” he said. Instead, he said, he supports abolishing mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in nonviolent crimes, like possession of marijuana. (He also stressed, as he often does these days, that “I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican.”) Ron voted against congressional resolutions saying Israel has the right to self-defense. Rand, like his father, wants to end all foreign aid, but he has softened this position when it comes to Israel, whose assistance, he says, should be wound down gradually.7 (In January, he visited Israel with pastors and GOP operatives, a clear attempt to mend fences with AIPAC.) He has tacked right on gay marriage (it should be left to the states until its opponents “win back the hearts and minds of people”); on national defense (he doesn’t want to close all overseas military bases just yet); and he opposes shuttering Guantánamo. Whereas his father lambasted Ronald Reagan for his big government and big deficits, Rand praises him, like a good Republican.
That Ron and Rand have not staked out identical positions is hardly surprising; they may share the same founding ideology, but each has bent it through the prisms of different life experiences. Ron grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of strict German Lutherans with an unrelenting work ethic; he and his brothers all worked at the family’s dairy-processing business.8 After serving in the Air Force and training as an obstetrician, he moved his young family to the small town of Lake Jackson, near Houston, in 1968. There, he fell in with the local libertarian scene, which appealed to his up-by-the-bootstraps ethos. He became known for handing out free copies of books by the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard at events, where there were often John Birchers in attendance.
Randal Paul had a more privileged upbringing.9 He was the son of the only obstetrician in town and lived in one of the first houses in the neighborhood with a pool. Instead of discovering his life’s philosophy, he inherited it. Growing up, he devoured his father’s core texts: Friedrich Hayek, von Mises, Milton Friedman, and Ayn Rand, whose militant atheism presented a dilemma for the churchgoing Pauls.10 “Obviously the library was tilted towards capitalism and not socialism,” Rand said. Jimmy Brown, a friend of the oldest Paul child, Ronnie, still recalls Dr. Paul’s preoccupation with monetary policy: “He talked a lot about inflation, about interest rates, about gold, debt.” The Paul home had “a very different atmosphere than in other houses,” says Mark Monical, one of Rand’s childhood friends.
In this libertarian Petri dish, there were no curfews and no allowances (handouts); chores were expected, not required. (Curiously, although Ron believed in legalizing drugs, smoking pot was a nonstarter, on health grounds.) “He was not a strict disciplinarian, but we would’ve felt bad to disappoint him,” explains Joy LeBlanc, the baby sister, who also became an obstetrician. “It was independence with rules,” says Ronnie. “We all grew up tasting freedom.”
In 1975, Rand became not only the son of a doctor, but the son of a congressman, too: Ron’s outrage with President Nixon’s decision to abandon the gold standard finally moved him to run for office as a Republican. (The GOP was then a minority party in Texas.) Rand was the most bookish and opinionated of the Paul kids and the only one to mention, unprompted, politics as a childhood pastime. “Going campaigning, knocking door to door, hearing speeches, things like that, from about eleven on,” he said when I asked him about his adolescence. “I probably heard about several thousand speeches of my dad’s growing up, went to a lot of political barbecues, knocked on a lot of doors.” “You knew he would go into politics eventually,” says Joy. “It was not a surprise to us when he ran for Senate.”
But Ron had always been adamant that politics was not a career: “Get a job,” Ronnie recalls him saying. So Rand did what his dad did. He went to Baylor but was accepted early to medical school at Duke thanks to his near-perfect MCAT score.11 During his medical training, Rand played key roles in his father’s various campaigns around the country. If Ron has built a national grassroots network, Rand was one of its main architects. That network included some extreme elements: For decades, various nonprofits associated with the elder Paul published pamphlets containing racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic vitriol. (According to a source close to the Paul family, Ron claims he didn’t read the offensive material, while Rand “was reading that stuff and saying, ‘This is horrible. You gotta knock it off.’”)
“I’m not a firm believer in democracy.”
However, while Ron was happy to dwell in the realm of ideas, Rand wanted to make them a reality. For his father, says Ronnie, politics “was just an excuse for him to talk about monetary policy.” Rand always had a sharper ambition. “Rand Paul doesn’t get off on tangents about the gold standard,” says Fergus Cullen, the former head of the New Hampshire GOP. “He doesn’t seem satisfied to simply make ideological points and let the chips fall where they may.” Philip Blumel met Rand working on Ron’s 1988 presidential campaign and later signed on to help with Ron’s White House bids in 2008 and 2012, which, he said, “I considered largely educational affairs.” By contrast, he said, “When Rand said he was going to run for the Senate, I knew that this was going to be a political campaign to win the seat and not just to make a point.”
And yet father and son agree on the utopian fundamentals—whittling the government down to its barest minimum, decriminalizing drug use, and moving toward an isolationist foreign policy.12 They frequently consult each other, even if they don’t always take the advice. When Ron ran for president, Rand was his chief surrogate; when Rand ran for the Senate, Ron referred to the race as “our campaign.”
Ronnie, who has Ron and Rand’s fine light hair and thick dark eyebrows, explained the differing logic when we met at a Mexican restaurant outside Houston. “Here’s the culminational philosophy of free markets and individual liberty and private-property rights, and all that’s over here,” he said, plunking his left hand down on the table. “And right now we’re over here.” He placed his right hand a couple feet away. “My dad’s runnin’ this way, and my brother’s runnin’ this way, and other people are runnin’ this way,” he said, tracing zig-zags and squiggles with his index finger, moving it across the table from his right hand (the dismal present) to his left (the libertarian ideal). Rand and Ron, he explained, are “on a little different trails, but they’re going the same direction, because there are different ways to get there.”
Indeed, Ron does not begrudge his son his earthly desires; if anything, he seems to value them. Brian Doherty, an editor* at the libertarian magazine Reason and Ron Paul’s biographer, traveled with the Pauls during the 2012 campaign. He told me that he once heard Ron say of Rand, “It may well be that his approach will be far more successful than mine ever was.”
In March, Paul rolled out his position on immigration at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce—a tough crowd, given his father’s opposition to birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants. Trey Grayson was in the audience, and he was astonished to see the transformation in his former opponent. In just three years, the awkward, small-town ophthalmologist had become a polished national political figure. “He had them in the palm of his hand,” Grayson recalled. Rand warmed up the crowd in broken Spanish, then joked about his mistakes; he talked about growing up in Texas with Hispanic friends. “He was just totally at ease,” Grayson says. “They weren’t his people going in, and I don’t know how many of them would vote for him, but I guarantee you they left there with a much more favorable opinion of him.” He added: “That’s his talent and that’s where he’s really grown. And that’s what’s helped him to become a guy who’s a serious candidate for president from the Republican Party.”
The transformation is not absolute; Paul’s ornery disposition makes him an erratic retail politician. “If he hadn’t grown up in a political family, I don’t think he would’ve found himself in politics,” Blumel says. “It isn’t naturally suited to who he is. I just can’t see him kissing babies.” At one Tea Party fund-raiser I attended, Paul barely listened to his fellow speakers, playing with the lapel of his jacket and looking up at the ceiling. When the event’s organizer announced that the senator would be signing his books afterward, Paul was so visibly annoyed that she had to turn to him and apologize. And yet Paul’s obvious loathing of the handshaking and the fund-raising and the speechifying is also a key part of his folksy appeal. Later, the organizer gushed to me that Paul’s lack of interest in political celebrity would make him “an amazing president.”
Still, for someone not temperamentally suited to politicking, Paul learns with impressive speed. An adviser McConnell dispatched from Washington to help with Paul’s Senate bid told me that Paul had been eager to improve and has “gotten much better over time.” For one thing, he has become noticeably more skilled in giving interviews. Before, he frustrated staffers with his earnest libertarian need to answer every question; today, he understands that it’s only in his interests to answer the ones he wants.
The most striking adaptation I witnessed followed a speech Paul gave at Howard University, the historically black college in Washington, D.C. Paul, spiritedly quoting Toni Morrison, informed the students that Republicans had once been the party of the abolitionists and Democrats the party of Jim Crow. He inquired, “How many of you, if I were to have said, ‘Who do you think the founders of the NAACP were,’ did you think they were Republicans or Democrats?”
Unfortunately for Paul, the students did know that the founders were Republicans and were not shy about letting him know that they knew. “Which Republican Party are you talking about?” one asked. “The party of Lincoln or the party of Nixon?” Another challenged him on his stance on the Civil Rights Act. Paul could not give satisfying answers to either question.13 Most students I spoke to described his visit as “condescending.” “You’re coming to Howard University, and you’re telling us about the history of black people?” one young woman said. “Toni Morrison quotes?” another asked. “Really?” (A Paul adviser later admitted, “It was probably an infield single, but at least he got on base.”)
But two days later in Louisville, Paul made a less-publicized visit to Simmons, another historically black college, and this time, he took a humbler approach. He turned down the podium, preferring to sit in a circle with students, professors, and members of the community. “I want to learn from you,” he said. For the most part, he avoided the intertwining histories of African Americans and the Republican Party. Instead, he turned most questions back on the questioners, asking politely for their opinions.
And rather than try to prove that the Republican Party had been good to blacks once upon a time, he focused on how the Republican Party could be good to them today. He talked about decriminalizing drug offenses and getting rid of the mandatory sentencing minimums that put so many young black men in jail. He talked about fixing the local school system, about not abolishing Pell grants “as long as it’s in the context of spending what you have.” To approving nods, he talked about how urban renewal had really meant “urban destruction” and about how “they tore down a lot of black businesses so people would go to white stores.” He found that this crowd, if not totally convinced, was receptive. Though he would still not give them a definitive answer on his position on the Civil Rights Act, he did say that he believed federal intervention had been justified. “I’m not a firm believer in democracy,” he explained. “It gave us Jim Crow.”
Paul may be working assiduously to tailor his message to constituencies unfamiliar to the modern GOP, but he also makes sure not to neglect the most ardent members of his base. The day after his Simmons appearance, I saw him address a “Freedom to Fish” rally at the Barkley Dam in western Kentucky. The dam was a favorite local fishing spot, and the locals were challenging a plan by the Army Corps of Engineers to install barriers to keep people from drowning in the turbulent tailwaters. “You know, sometimes, I think the government in Washington thinks we’re just too dumb to take care of ourselves,” Paul told the cheering crowd. “They think that, somehow, they have a monopoly on knowledge.”
Afterward, he was mobbed by a stream of fans who thanked him for everything from the filibuster to just being Rand Paul. “I want to tell you how much I appreciate y’all standing up for our rights against these jerks,” one man said. Another leaned in conspiratorially as he shook the senator’s hand. “I admire your moxie in speaking to these black college kids,” he said knowingly, referring to the Howard speech.
It was Paul’s natural, government-off-my-back constituency, but he wasn’t shy about his grander ambitions. “You gotta present ideas in a way that it brings more people to it,” he told the scrum of supporters, not concealing his impatience to get in his car and rush home to Bowling Green. Nor, he said, is he stopping at Iowa and New Hampshire, where his father had blazed a path before him. “We gotta win Illinois and New York state and California,” he said, “and those are hard.”
Julia Ioffe is a senior editor at The New Republic.