Stop calling this man a "libertarian": What 2016 campaign journos miss about Rand Paul

He opposes choice and gay rights. He supports more war. Yet lazy media say he’s a libertarian who appeals to youth

Published April 6, 2015 6:23PM (EDT)

Rand Paul                         (AP/Cheryl Senter)
Rand Paul (AP/Cheryl Senter)

Nothing screams “I’m a libertarian” like a creepy, cultish, rhyming campaign slogan, don’t you think? Something like "Defeat the Washington machine. Unleash the American dream,” Sen. Rand Paul’s new motto (as leaked to Politico), teasing the kickoff to his 2016 presidential campaign?

Can’t you imagine glassy-eyed, libertarian-minded Millennials chanting that slogan, maybe wearing some kind of military-style yet vaguely hipsterish campaign uniform?

No, actually, I can’t either. Rhyming slogans don’t say “libertarian” to me; Paul’s tweet seemed weirdly authoritarian, in fact. But on the eve of Paul’s announcing a 2016 presidential run, nothing makes sense about his campaign branding, or the way the media simply accept it, in all its messy, massively self-contradictory glory.

So I write to give my colleagues one simple tip to improve their Paul campaign coverage: Stop calling him a “libertarian.” Stop it right now.

And a related piece of advice: Stop reflexively insisting he’s going to appeal to supposedly libertarian-minded Millennials. Because he’s not.

Robert Draper didn’t create the Paul charade, but he seriously helped it along, in his New York Times magazine piece on the nation’s supposed “libertarian moment” last August. He saw the moment well-captured by Rand Paul, who was "to the libertarian movement what Pearl Jam is to rock," Draper wrote, explaining. “On issues including same-sex marriage, surveillance and military intervention, his positions more closely mirror those of young voters than those of the G.O.P. establishment.”

Many good reporters and analysts have spent many long hours debunking Draper’s assumptions. (I tried it here.) On issues of women’s rights and LGBT rights, immigration, drug legalization and even military spending and intervention, Paul has either always been or has become a fairly standard issue Republicans.

Think Progress’s Judd Legum runs exhaustively through the record, but here are a few highlights. First of all, he’s staunchly anti-choice, supporting the “Life begins at Conception Act” and pretty much every other piece of anti-abortion legislation that’s come before him. He’s got a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee. To be fair, other libertarians have gotten away with being pro-liberty for everyone but women. Paul’s father Ron, who was somewhat more genuinely libertarian than his son, likewise supported draconian anti-abortion laws.

And while Paul used to sound vaguely live-and-let-live when it came to gay marriage, he has toughened his rhetoric. He now says the idea of a marriage between a same-sex couples “offends myself and a lot of people,” and he’s joined Rick Santorum in suggesting it may lead to interspecies intimacy. We learned last week that he doesn’t even believe in the concept of gay rights, telling an interviewer in 2013, “I really don’t believe in rights based on your behavior.”

Where libertarians tend to support liberalizing immigration laws and promoting more open borders, Paul has voted against any liberalization of U.S. immigration policy. He even cosponsored a bill with Sen. David Vitter to end citizenship rights for the children of foreigners born on this soil, when he first got to the Senate. “Citizenship is a privilege,” Paul said at the time, “and only those who respect our immigration laws should be allowed to enjoy its benefits.”

On issues of military intervention and defense spending, Paul used to be more aligned with anti-intervention libertarians. Not any more. He signed Sen. Tom Cotton’s war-mongering letter to Iran’s ayatollahs, for God’s sake. Longtime defender Justin Raimondo of, who’s trolled me for years over my Paul criticism, trashed Paul: "This was the last straw,” Raimondo told the Daily Beast’s Olivia Nuzzi. “I've put up with a lot from that guy! I've had to defend him like a Jesuit. I'm done. Let somebody else do it."

Likewise, his admirers at Reason magazine lost it over his new budget proposals hiking defense spending. His first proposed budget in 2011 cut defense by $164 billion over five years; last month Paul outlined a $190 billion defense spending hike, over the next two years. “Rand Paul goes hawkish, proposes massive defense increases, becomes less interesting,” complained Reason’s Nick Gillespie.

Paul has also flip-flopped on Israel, moving from calling to withdraw most foreign aid to the country to sponsoring the “Stand with Israel Act” last year, which would have increased aid while cutting it from the Palestinian Authority entirely.

The supposedly groovy Kentucky senator even opposes the legalization of marijuana, though he did cosponsor a bill with Democrats Kristen Gillibrand and Cory Booker to protect medical marijuana patients from federal prosecution in states where it is legal. Paul hyped his opposition to legal marijuana, not surprisingly, in a meeting with ministers in 2013. “I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot,” Paul said. “I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative.”

See, 2016 reporters? He said it himself. He’s not a libertarian. Why keep the myth alive in tedious, insight-free campaign coverage?

By Joan Walsh