Rand Paul's character problem: How he compromised his entire belief system for politics

It's getting harder and harder to justify calling Rand Paul the "libertarian candidate" in the field

Published March 27, 2015 7:17PM (EDT)

Rand Paul                                       (AP/Stephan Savoia)
Rand Paul (AP/Stephan Savoia)

When word got out that Rand Paul was offering a budget amendment to increase the Defense budget by hundreds of billions of dollars over the next two fiscal years, my reaction wasn't so much surprise as curiosity about his excuse. Paul quite rationally recognizes that there's no GOP primary gold to be had in remaining a defense-spending skeptic. But how would he cover up this glaring reversal of position?

"Reversal of position" doesn't really cover it. Reversal of character, ethos, biography is more like it. Reversal of the whole point of being Rand Paul: representing whatever hesitancy to commit to overseas adventurism exists in the Republican party following the Bush administration's overreach. That flank no longer exists in meaningful numbers, and so now neither does Rand Paul.

I'd figured he'd go for some sort of truth-in-budgeting play. The fake debate around the Pentagon's budget these past two weeks hasn't been between camps that want to restrict the Pentagon and those who want to expand it. It's between sides that all agree the Pentagon should have access to extraordinary sums of cash to do whatever it wants, but disagree about whether those funds should be on the books or in "emergency" accounts that don't count against budget caps.

He does acknowledge the truth-in-budgeting aspect, meeting only President Obama's more modest OCO request and putting the rest of Defense spending aboveboard. But truth-in-budgeting is not exactly the most rousing political play. Specifically: no one gives a shit about it outside of some DC think tanks.

Paul's main rationale is more of a traditional right-wing budget hawk's. His amendment included an additional $212 billion in cuts over the next two years to mostly domestic departments that Republicans don't like as well as the foreign aid budget. (This on top of the slaughtering that these departments will already be taking in Republican appropriations bills.) Here's the annoyingly red-meat way that one of his advisors explains it to Reason's Nick Gillespie:

This amendment is to lay down a marker that if you believe we need more funding for national defense, you should show how you would pay for it. We can't just keep borrowing more money from China to send to Pakistan. And we can't keep paying for even vital things like national defense on a credit card.

Paul's amendment ran the serious risk of being the last straw for many libertarians, who were already peeved at him for getting hot in the belly about "destroying" ISIS and then for signing Sen. Tom Cotton's dumb letter to Iran. So Paul's move for libertarians -- those who carve out his "lane" in the GOP presidential primary -- was also one of offsets: offsetting his betrayal on foreign policy libertarianism by going hard on economic libertarianism.

The problem for Paul with libertarians is that trading foreign policy libertarianism for more better economic libertarianism makes you a generic Republican. Libertarians don't just see over-the-top military spending as something to be traded for cuts elsewhere. They see cutting over-the-top military spending as a major goal in and of itself. As Gillespie writes in that same piece:

Now more than ever, the country needs a strong and unambiguous voice to argue that $600 billion is far more than enough to secure the safety and security of U.S. citizens and interests. If anything, we seriously need to be talking about cutting down the drag that debt-financed military spending puts on the economy and, more important, the awful outcomes the past dozen years of U.S. foreign policy has visited not just upon our armed forces but people around the globe. [...]

It's to Rand Paul's immense credit that he, alone among even his Tea Party compatriots who were sent to the Senate to reduce federal spending, wants to pay for any and all increases in defense spending.

It will be better still, for the country and the wide, wide world, if Paul once again channels his earlier self and calls for a reduction in overall spending, including the reckless piling up of arms and men that have not advanced national security in any observable way.

I feel sad for Nick Gillespie and the Reason people. Poor Nick! Here they finally had a libertarian Republican candidate with a not-impossible shot of winning the presidential nomination, but in order to further his chances at winning said nomination, Paul is having to shake off the core libertarian traits that no longer fly in Republican politics.

What does Paul offer libertarians now that the other GOP candidates don't? He wants to slash the hell out of domestic spending. Nothing unique there. He wants to comically ramp up defense spending. Nothing unique there. On social issues he's getting more and more God-y in preparation for the Iowa caucuses. Nothing unique there. He's still great on criminal justice reform and the War on Drugs, but even that's becoming less of a controversial position within the Republican party. If that's all that's needed to retain the sheen of "libertarian candidate" in the field, libertarians might as well throw their weight behind Rick Perry.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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