Good news, everyone. We’ve managed to elect a government so disastrously inept and so thoroughly incapable of projecting an image of basic competence that the libertarians are getting a renewed burst of public attention. “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?” asks Robert Draper’s lengthy New York Times piece on the limited-government movement that’s eager to capitalize on our deep, bipartisan dissatisfaction with the people we keep electing to office. “Today, for perhaps the first time, the libertarian movement appears to have genuine political momentum on its side,” Draper writes.
The best expression of that momentum is the fact that Rand Paul, Kentucky’s libertarian/conservative/Tea Party/Republican senator, is considered a credible candidate for the presidency in 2016. And to hear Paul’s supporters – and quite a few media types – say it, the senator has “broad” or “crossover” appeal that derives from his proud libertarian heritage. Sure he’s a tax-cutting, regulation-shredding, small-government conservative, but he also opposes military adventurism of the sort that landed us in Iraq. “Rand is the Republican who has the best chance of keeping and energizing the base while going into their constituencies,” a Paul aide told the Daily Beast. “It’s kind of dangerous to have a Republican like Rand.”
Of course, Rand Paul has learned what libertarians have known ever since the movement began: People tend not to vote for libertarians. And so while he’s sticking to anti-interventionist foreign policies and opposition to the war on drugs, he’s also busily shedding large chunks of his libertarian past. If Rand Paul has “crossover” appeal, it’s not because he espouses libertarian positions – it’s because he’s purging himself of his own principles.
Pretty much every politician who wants to be elected president dabbles in moderation to some extent. They make a calculation: If I temper my stance on issue X, some people will call me a flip-flopper, but more people will vote for me. Most of the time, those politicians go through the sometimes genuine, though mostly contrived, explanations for why they’ve “evolved” on that issue. But Rand Paul’s not bothering to own up to his shifting ideology. He’s replacing the extreme positions he once vociferously defended with mish-mashes of conservative pablum and denying that he ever once let libertarian dogma take him down some very scary paths.
There are a wealth of issues one could choose from to demonstrate this – the Civil Rights Act, aid to Israel, shutting down the government – but I’ll focus on immigration because it’s in the news and because I’ll take any excuse to write about Rand Paul’s "dreamer" dine-and-ditch. By now you’ve probably seen the video – Paul was in the immediate vicinity of Rep. Steve King as King was confronted by a pair of young undocumented immigrants who wanted to discuss his hard-line stance on immigration issues. Upon hearing one them declare herself a "dreamer," Paul nearly aspirated his hamburger and, heeding the “let’s get the hell out of here” head jerk from his adjutant, fled the incipient fracas.
Asked to describe what happened by Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren, Paul offered a semi-plausible explanation: Another reporter had already asked him for an interview, but Paul told him “I need to take a couple more bites.” Sure! Why not. But what he said next deserves a bit of scrutiny: “You know me, I've always been open to discussing immigration. I'm very open to discussing that I think there should be some kind of immigration reform, but I think you can't do that without first securing the border.”
So that’s Rand Paul’s position on immigration reform: something, but secure the border first. Bold! “Border security first” is the position of your average Republican legislator, whether they truly want to reform the immigration system or just want to throw up roadblocks to legislation. But that’s not always where Rand Paul has landed on immigration issues.
Way back in 2008, when he was campaigning for his father during the Republican primaries, Paul sounded off on the “NAFTA Superhighway,” a favorite topic of conspiracy theorists who believe there’s a secret plan afoot to merge the U.S., Mexico and Canada into a single nation. “It's a real thing,” Paul insisted, “and when you talk about it, the thing you just have to be aware of is that, if you talk about it like it's a conspiracy, they'll paint you as a nut.” But it wasn’t a conspiracy, Paul insisted. “I guarantee you it's one of their long-term goals to have one sort of borderless, mass continent.”
Paul was elected to the Senate in 2010 and one of the first things he did upon taking office was to join up with Sen. David Vitter in proposing a constitutional amendment to do away with birthright citizenship. At the time, Republicans were obsessed with the idea of “anchor babies” – pregnant undocumented immigrants crossing the border to give birth, thus granting their children U.S. citizenship. There’s no evidence to suggest that this phenomenon actually exists, but the hysterical ramblings of anti-immigrant nativists were enough for Paul to endorse a radical change to the foundation of American citizenship. “Citizenship is a privilege,” Paul said at the time, “and only those who respect our immigration laws should be allowed to enjoy its benefits.”
He’s since abandoned all that for the vague, crowd-pleasing mantra of border security. For someone like me who spent most of 2007 and 2008 watching conservatives and reporters dig eagerly through Barack Obama’s every public utterance for hidden glimmers of radical socialism, it a bit baffling to see Paul gain traction as a “crossover” candidate when his political history up until very recently was marked by fringe libertarianism.
And if Paul were upfront about these changes, one might be inclined to cut him a bit of slack. But he’s insisting that the Rand Paul of today is the same Rand Paul that’s always existed.