Rand Paul's "youth" snow job: Why he'll never, ever, ever win over young voters

Republicans and pundits say Rand Paul could appeal to millennials in 2016. Here's why that's totally ridiculous

Published March 22, 2014 10:30AM (EDT)

Rand Paul                         (AP/Susan Walsh)
Rand Paul (AP/Susan Walsh)

With a Chris Christie comeback looking less likely and a Jeb Bush shadow campaign only just now entering its preliminary stages, the political media that isn’t tethered to the Hillary Clinton beat — where news of no news is treated as news — has turned its eyes to Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul, the man who will singlehandedly bring his party into the 21st century by referencing modern cultural touchstones like Pink Floyd, Domino’s pizza and Monica Lewinsky. The narrative, pushed by Paul’s office and accepted by bored, middle-aged members of the press, is that the 51-year-old libertarian is just what Republicans needs to win over millennial voters and reclaim the White House in 2016. 

To be blunt: This is a stupid narrative and everyone who isn’t being paid by the Republican Party to promote it needs to stop.

Before getting into why the idea of Millennial Man Rand Paul is nonsense, it’s worth unpacking the argument. To be fair, it’s a bit more sophisticated than what I’ve described above. As Joe Gandelman put it in a deeply unpersuasive article for the Week, the curly-haired lover of liberty “has appeal to millennials disillusioned by intrusive government surveillance and aggressive drone strikes,” and that means he “could really boost his numbers in GOP contests if he's able to mobilize young voters...” This could “snowball,” Gandelman writes, so long as Paul can convince the kids that he’s “truly a candidate of change,” a proposition made all the more likely by the fact that “Paul would be the first GOP nominee whose ideology is genuinely anchored in libertarianism, with positions that often can't be neatly categorized.”

Putting those last two assertions aside — I’d say Barry Goldwater’s ideology was quite clearly “anchored in libertarianism” and that libertarian positions can, in fact, be “neatly categorized” as, well, libertarian — Gandelman’s argument boils down to the following: Young people don’t like the NSA and drones, so they might vote for Paul, who is also a skeptic of the post-9/11 national security paradigm. Yet while he’s right that millennial voters are far less comfortable with spying and drone strikes than the rest of the electorate, Gandelman exaggerates the intensity of their disaffection. 

On spying, for example, it’s true that young voters are more concerned with civil liberties; but as a 2013 Washington Post poll found, 18- to 39-year-old Americans still think investigating terrorist threats is more important than preserving civil liberties, by a breakdown of 52 to 45 percent. On drone strikes, meanwhile, a 2013 Fox News poll finds the conventional wisdom to be even more out of touch: by a score of 65 to 32 percent, respondents under the age of 35 said they approve of the U.S. using drones to kill suspected terrorists on foreign soil. In fact, the only scenario for which a majority of the under-35 crowd disapproves of drone strikes is if the suspect is an American citizen and the strike takes place on U.S. soil. Even then, it’s hardly a blowout, with 44 percent registering their approval.

So Gandelman’s pretty wrong, any way you slice it. But a better argument for Paul’s appealing to young voters is possible, and was indeed offered by Ross Kaminsky in the American Spectator. Instead of leaning so heavily on the assumption that kids these days hate Big Brother, Kaminsky notes that on issues where millennial voters really stick out from the rest — marriage equality and immigration reform — Paul has tried to “thread the needle” by adopting positions that are slightly more nuanced than the GOP norm. Paul’s against same-sex marriage, yes, but he thinks it’s an issue best “left to the states” and has argued that a reform of the tax code, “so it doesn’t mention marriage,” would save the country from having to “redefine what marriage is…” On immigration reform, too, Paul ultimately votes with the rest of his party, but does so while leaving some wiggle room for expanding the work visa program and legal immigration in general.

Better is a relative term, however. While it’s true that Paul doesn’t usually sound like an unreconstructed homophobe on the issue of gay marriage, it’s also true that Paul has jokingly compared same-sex marriage to polygamy and bestiality, putting himself in the same company as that noted champion of individual rights, Rick Santorum. Moreover, while nuance is nice, the fact remains that Paul is, objectively, against marriage equality. Why would a millennial voter who cares about LGBTQ issues support the guy who opposes marriage equality, and compared same-sex partnerships to bestiality, over a candidate who doesn’t do either of those things? Because nuance? Further, why would a millennial voter who wants to see immigration reform happen in this country support a candidate who doesn’t? Because he’s willing to accept immigrants as a source of labor, even if he doesn’t think they deserve a path to citizenship? Because, again, nuance?

Granted, Kaminsky and his fellow travelers would probably say that while Paul won’t win millennials over on these issues, his “balanced” approach might be enough to keep them from dismissing him before listening any further. There’s probably something to that. But there’s still a problem: It’s not like millennials are exactly in sync with Paul’s views on economic issues, either. Kaminsky’s implication that younger voters would thrill to Paul’s doctrinaire laissez faire approach to the economy, if they could only look past social issues, just doesn’t withstand even a little bit of scrutiny.

It’s true that millennial voters are not nearly as enthusiastic about the positive role government can play in promoting social and economic equality as they were in the early days of the Obama era. Back then, according to a 2009 report from the Dem-aligned Center for American Progress, as much as two-thirds of young voters said that government should provide more services, while three-fourths said there were more things the government could and should be doing. A half-decade of Democratic incompetence and Tea Party obstruction has definitely taken its toll. 

Nevertheless, a Pew Research Center report put out earlier this month found that the majority of millennials still want to see their government do more, not less, to even the playing field. Asked to choose between smaller government with fewer services and bigger government with more services, 53 percent of millennials chose the latter while only 38 percent picked the former. And even though 54 percent of them oppose Obamacare, only 44 percent agree with Paul that it’s not the government’s job to ensure health insurance coverage for all. Perhaps the most telling finding of the whole report in this regard concerns Social Security, that longtime bugaboo of Paul and libertarians like him. Despite the fact that a whopping 51 percent of millennials believe they’ll receive no Social Security benefits by the time they’re eligible, and despite the fact that 53 percent of millennials think government should focus spending on helping the young rather than the old, a remarkable 61 percent of young voters oppose cutting Social Security benefits in any way, full stop.

Persuasive as they can be, though, polls can’t tell us everything. As mentioned earlier, History happens, and people’s views can change. Demography may be a more reliable metric, then (even if too many Democrats have succumbed to the fallacious “demography is destiny” belief that a more racially diverse rising electorate will guarantee Dems a permanent majority). Paul certainly appears to be thinking about the country’s demographic changes; he seemingly can’t go 10 minutes into an interview or public statement without noting that his party must be more “inclusive” and “welcoming” to what Republicans like to call, in a triumph of euphemism, “non-traditional” voting blocs.

But as his much-discussed speech last year at Howard University — and his recent decision to chide Obama for failing to remember how Martin Luther King was spied upon — can attest, Paul’s version of outreach is not without its blemishes. He deserves some amount of credit for recognizing that non-white voters matter, too, I guess. But as is the case with immigration and same-sex marriage, Paul’s attempts at nuance are more than outweighed by his concrete policy stances. Simply put, I doubt that a young voter of color is going to look sympathetically at the image of a white, Southern conservative whitesplaining Martin Luther King to the first African American president — especially if that voter happens to know that Paul supports modern versions of the voter suppression tactics King and other civil rights heroes risked their lives to end. And what do you think the chances are that a Democratic presidential candidate would bring up Paul’s infamous attack on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 during a national campaign? I’d say they’re pretty, pretty, pretty good.

To recap, here’s the case for Rand Paul, millennial hero: He’s against surveillance and drone strikes, two issues on which the millennial vote is divided; he’s against comprehensive immigration reform and same-sex marriage, two things that millennial voters strongly support; he’s against big government and universal health care, two more things a majority of millennial voters back; and he likes to talk about getting people of color to vote for him, despite supporting voter suppression and the right of businesses to engage in race-based discrimination. Oh, and he’s comfortable telling the first black president, the one who “surrounds himself with Martin Luther King memorabilia in [the] Oval Office,” how he’s failing to live up to King’s legacy.

So can we stop with this nonsense now? Please?

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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