Rand Paul is here to take his country back. Who’s going with him?

Mixing a few bold ideas with warmed-over conservatism, Paul left the politics of Christian victimhood to Ted Cruz

By Joan Walsh
Published April 7, 2015 6:35PM (EDT)
Rand Paul                     (Reuters/John Sommers Ii)
Rand Paul (Reuters/John Sommers Ii)

Flanked by flags and his weirdly cultish slogan, “Defeat the Washington Machine, Unleash the American Dream” -- plastered above the stage and on the podium too --  Sen. Rand Paul kicked off his 2016 campaign on Tuesday at Louisville’s Galt Hotel, thrilling Ayn Rand lovers everywhere. It was a panoramic, herky-jerky speech at turns dyspeptic and optimistic, delivered by a hopped-up, over-amped Paul, who dove over the early applause and jumped right in.

“I have a message!” he shouted, his voice reedy. “We’ve come to take our country back!

Paul paused. It seemed he might be talking to those sad anti-Obama wingnuts who want their country back from the Kenyan usurper -- but then he said he was talking to “the special interests” and “the Washington machine.” Whew. It was clever: his audience could hear whichever message it wanted, but the nasty media couldn’t accuse him of opening his campaign with an appeal to Obama hate.

It wasn’t a bad speech, though it was all over the place, with anodyne notions like his “Read the Bill Act” and a call for Congressional term limits alongside a few bold proposals, especially on privacy and over-incarceration. Paul promised to stop collecting Americans’ phone records “on day one,” and to repeal “any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color." If Paul means it, that’s the most interesting policy proposal of the campaign season to date.

On foreign policy issues, he tried to have it both ways, bowing to the hawkish doofuses who insist Obama doesn’t hate Islam enough. "Until we name the enemy we can't win the war,” he declared, and then he delivered: “The enemy is radical Islam, you can't get around it." Paul sounded skeptical of the pending deal with Iran, but unlike Scott Walker he didn’t promise to undo that on day one. (Hopefully he’ll be too busy telling the NSA to stop collecting our phone calls.) But he recast his vaguely isolationist disdain for what he calls “nation-building” as conservative Washington bashing, insisting "a government inept at home can not nation build abroad,” to wild applause.

Like the other 2016 GOP hopefuls, Paul clearly thinks issues of economic inequality and wage stagnation can be used to indict Democrats. But his solutions are warmed over supply side, including “economic freedom zones” – updated empowerment zones that slash taxes and regulations in poor neighborhoods but haven’t ever been shown to do much (besides siphon businesses and dollars from just outside the zone.) He also gave a weird little tribute to the power of work, reminiscing about his boyhood jobs teaching swimming lessons, mowing lawns and “landscaping.”

“I never saw work, though, as punishment. Work gave me a sense of who I am. Self-esteem can’t be given, it must be earned. Work is not punishment, work is the reward," he declared.

It sounded like privileged young Randy Paul thinks liberals just want to hand out self-esteem and money, and the poor don’t understand the value of old-fashioned hard work. If only the chronically unemployed could give swimming lessons. (Speaking of his childhood, Paul never once mentioned the name of his political mentor and father, Ron Paul, merely thanking "Mom and Dad.")

But it could have been much worse. He didn’t ape Ted Cruz at Liberty University and make the case that Christians are the real victims of discrimination and abuse. He said nothing about the “religious freedom” controversies of recent weeks, or about gay marriage or abortion. We’ll hear about all of that, I’m sure, as Paul takes his campaign into Iowa.

But Tuesday was about casting Paul as “a different kind of Republican,” and at times, the promise (and peril for Democrats) that the Kentucky senator has occasionally seemed to represent was on display. We’ll see if Pandering Randy returns in the next phase of his kickoff as Paul heads to Iowa.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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2016 Elections Gop Primary 2016 Iowa President Obama Ron Paul Sen. Rand Paul Sen. Ted Cruz