EXCLUSIVE: Rand Paul sounds off to Salon on race, 2016, Hillary and Republicans

GOP senator tells Salon about his potential White House bid, the GOP establishment and race in America

Published November 20, 2014 4:15PM (EST)

Rand Paul                                (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Rand Paul (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

With an eye on a potential 2016 bid for the White House, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul continues to test whether his libertarian-leaning message can attract new voters to the Republican Party. His appearance on liberal commentator Bill Maher’s HBO talk show last Friday (along with this interview) helped fuel the notion that unlike most other key figures from either major party, Paul is willing to talk with audiences who may not be disposed to agree with him.

Of course, there are plenty who scoff at the idea of a Tea Party icon being the face of a sweeping coalition. Skepticism has been especially fierce -- including at this site -- when Paul has attempted to reach out to African-American voters, with critics noting Paul's disapproval (as a Senate candidate four years ago) of a key provision of the 1964 Civil Right Act barring discrimination among private business.

On the other hand, for a younger generation of voters feeling ignored by Democrats, Paul’s present-day position on U.S. drug laws and criminal justice reforms have appeal:

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The senator, who has been referred to as the “most interesting man in Washington,” seems intent on testing whether a candidate who has openly courted the fringe of American politics can successfully attract wider support in this current political climate.

Paul talked to Salon this week about this attempt to broaden his appeal, particularly to non-white and young voters, why his party establishment still seems to have Romney fever, and whether he'd give up his Senate seat to seek the White House in 2016. Our conversation follows, lightly condensed and edited.

Your appearance on Bill Maher’s show last week suggests you intend to court liberals and independents if you run for president. How can a proud member of the Tea Party really achieve this? 

You know, I think there is a great deal of possibility for any candidate who can get out of either party, that doesn’t neatly fit in either party’s mold. So I think if you had a Democrat unusual enough to get through the primary system but to appeal to people outside of the Democrat mold, they could do well. Same goes for a Republican. And I’ll often tell people that a plurality of Americans now no longer consider themselves either Republicans or Democrats, so if you’re a Republican and wanted to get Bill Maher’s vote, it’s probably a difficult sell, but the fact that he’s open and willing because he’s frustrated with both sides, I think is emblematic of a lot of people, particularly young people. I don’t think they’re wedded to one party or the other, and so I think the biggest obstacle to somebody coming out that could attract people from the middle is getting through the primary system, because you’ve got to get through a primary system that, on both sides, you know, sort of demands ideological purity, and then if someone is outside of those bounds, it’s more difficult to get through the primary system.

But if you do, I’m convinced -- and basically the pitch I give to people is, look, you want somebody that reaches beyond the bounds of the Republican Party because that’s how you win general elections. So I think there’s an argument to be made even in a primary that you want somebody who can reach beyond the typical boundaries of party. And frankly for us as the Republican Party, I think the demographics of the country are such that if the trend lines of our lack of ability to get African-American votes and our decreasing ability to get Hispanic votes, if those trend lines continue, I think we won’t be able to win presidential elections, period. So I’m doing a lot of things, I’m doing, not only because I think the issues are right and I believe them, but I also believe in the electoral success that whoever runs or whoever is our nominee for president will have to be someone who disrupts the normal demographic voting patterns.

You made a pretty bold statement, for a Republican, about the situation in Ferguson, speaking out against the militarization of police. Since then, what are your thoughts about how state and local authorities are handling the situation?

You know, I think there still needs to be legislation, because I think the whole surplus military defense being given to the police is a bad idea. You know, we had a hearing about a month ago on this in Homeland Security, and I asked, frankly, I believe the guy who was the head of FEMA at the time, I said, you know, what do police need with 12,000 bayonets? And he didn’t have a very good answer. [Laughs] He said we’re studying it, and it’s like, how much studying do you need to do to find out that the police don’t need bayonets?

And he kind of acknowledged it, but it’s a problem with government, it’s like if you’re in charge of this, wouldn't you just tomorrow or today make the decision we’re no longer going to give out bayonets?

When it comes to race, how do you explain to potential new supporters some past controversies – like your comments on the Civil Rights Act and a former aide’s neo-Confederate past --  that you know Democrats and others will bring up should you seek the White House?

Well, I think that I simply point to my record. I don’t think there has been anybody who has been a bigger defender of minority rights in the Congress than myself, and that’s not saying others aren’t trying as well. But I think you can see a history and a litany of bills that I’ve put forward to not only restore voting rights, but to try to prevent people from the tragedy of losing their employability through felony convictions and other things.

People will always do things for partisan purposes, and I think some of that drummed up in the beginning for partisan purposes when I was running for office. But no, I don’t think there’s anything out there that people are going to say, “Oh, look at this, this means that you’re a racist,” or something, and I think if they do, they probably pigeonhole themselves as being unreasonable by making that kind of comment.

A number of Beltway publications such as Time magazine have dubbed you the most interesting person in D.C. But others have covered your flirtation with fringe theories such as the National Weather Service buying ammunition and the UN seizing firearms. How do you explain those earlier statements for voters willing to give you a shot but potentially concerned by these ideas?

You know, I think the over-militarization of local police forces is also true of the over-militarization of the federal government, so I don’t really run and hide from the comment that I think there are 48 federal agencies that have SWAT teams.

So, for example, in my book, "Government Bullies," we write about a SWAT team being sent to an organic food store outside of L.A. This is the USDA, so the Department of Agriculture has a SWAT team, and they went out there to confiscate unpasteurized milk. You have a crowd of people who, for one reason or another, like to drink it straight from the cow and think it’s better for them, but to me it’s sort of their business what they want to do. But we actually do have a SWAT team for the USDA. Fish and Forest, the US Fish and Forestry … what is it called …  Anyway, they’ve got a SWAT team. They went into Gibson Guitar basically with a SWAT team based on a regulation in India that they said they were in violation of the regulation in India.

So, yeah, I do think the government is over-militarized and we’ve over-criminalized things, not just in the drug war, but in everything. I mean, we write in the book of a guy who was putting … elevating … raising the elevation with fill dirt, clean dirt, and he was put in jail for conspiracy to violate the Clean Water Act for 10 years, and he’s still in prison. So we’ve gone overboard, not only on the war on drugs, but on the over-criminalization that things, that even if you think they ought to be illegal, ought to be civil fines. And I think actually if you comply with the civil fine, or whatever, you ought to be able to … you shouldn’t have like criminal sentences. I think that’s crazy for a lot of this stuff.

Looking at 2016, Kentucky law forbids a candidate’s name from appearing on the ballot more than once (e.g., running for president and Senate at the same time). Given that Democrats in the state House maintain control of that chamber, how do you expect to get around the law if you do indeed run for president?

Well, we’re definitely running for reelection for the U.S. Senate and we’ll actually have an announcement on that probably next week, but we will run for reelection. On the other, there are various possibilities that have been discussed in the media on how to do it. There’s a possibility that the Republican Party could choose to have a convention, in which case there would not be a primary ballot to be on twice, and that would overcome, really, I think, the problem there. But some of that discussion is ongoing and some of it hasn’t been finalized.

Which do you favor?

Well, I think making the playing field equal for people across the United States. That’s one reason why we think there’s a constitutional question here. Should people who live in Minnesota get the chance to vote for one of their favorite sons or daughters twice, and people in Kentucky not? So I think eligibility for office has to be uniform across the states. There was a term limits case many years ago, and even though I favor term limits, I think they made the right decision, that Washington state could not restrict their congressman to three terms and Kentucky have no limit on terms. The Constitution set the requirements for eligibility for office that states can’t modify for federal office; they can modify for state office, but I think that’s actually a case that could be won, but it’s also just a fairness issue. You know, there’s two dozen people who have run for both offices, both presidency and a local office in their state, and I think people, if they were presented with the idea of fairness, would say, you know what, why would we punish someone who’s from our state versus someone who’s from Connecticut or Wisconsin or Texas?

Fellow Republican Sen. Marco Rubio faces a similar situation in Florida, and suggested he would not seek reelection if he ran for president. Under any scenario would you be willing to give up your Senate seat for a White House bid?

I think every individual’s got to make up their own mind, and I don’t have any comment on what his decision is, because I don’t think it’s really clear what his decision is from that, but you know, that’ll be something that he has to determine over time. But I think there have been a number of people that have been on the ballot more than once and there is a fairness issue that we shouldn’t allow some states to do it and other states not to. And I really think the court will side with that as well, because the court has consistently upheld that federal elections, the eligibility for office, you know, the Congress … the Constitution actually sets how old you are and exactly who can be eligible for both Senate and for Congress, those are federal rules, not state rules, so I think there will be a tough time with the law and that. But we’d probably just as soon not get involved with that law, and still have a decision-making process, whether or not we’re going forward with it. So we’ll address that probably in the spring.

As you consider running for president in 2016, big GOP donors and elites have responded by desperately pushing Mitt Romney and other establishment types to get in the race. Are you disturbed by the fact that elites in your party are reacting this way?

You know, I think there’s been a history in, probably in both parties, of trying to go for what’s safe, you know. So, on the Democrat side you could make the same argument for Hillary Clinton. You may not get a lot of new ideas, you may not get a lot of innovation, you may get really a rehashing of old things, old policies, but she’ll be the safe bet, she’s well-known, she has universal name recognition. The same can happen on the Republican side, but I think there’s an argument on our side, at least, that safe hasn’t won.

We tried safe the last couple of times, meaning the, sort of the establishment. I don’t have anything against Romney, I like Romney, I supported him, but we need someone that goes beyond safe to try to attract new constituencies. And so whether I’m that person or not is yet to be determined, but I think, I fully and strongly believe, and I think a lot of people who support the party believe that we will have to reach out to new constituencies, whether that’s African-Americans, Hispanics, young people, women, you name it. We’re going to have to reach out to new constituencies.

By Phillip M. Bailey

Phillip M. Bailey is an award-winning freelance journalist and Kentucky native who covers city, state, and national politics. Follow him on Twitter at @phillipmbailey.

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