Anxiety is permeating some corners of the libertarian universe. The narrative is that Rand Paul has compromised his beliefs and is in danger of losing his core supporters. It’s important to explore what’s driving these concerns in the context of both Paul’s presidential candidacy, and the broader debate over how to most effectively promote liberty-minded ideas in mainstream political discourse.
Recently, my friend and awesome libertarian commentator Julie Borowski wrote “An Open Letter to Rand Paul.” Her piece captured the fears that some libertarians have about the direction of his campaign. I’m not seeking to dismiss these apprehensions as irrelevant, but rather to analyze them in a light many libertarians may not have yet considered.
Nobody, libertarian or otherwise, should blindly support any politician. At the same time, libertarians lose out on opportunities to make tangible progress when we blind ourselves to the realities of political strategy and incremental persuasion. It’s within this framework that I’d like to address some critiques of Senator Paul that have been floating around in the libertarian ether.
Julie Borowski captures the bulk of concerns I’ve seen:
“You voted for sanctions against Russia. You signed onto Tom Cotton’s Iran letter–the problem is the intent of the undiplomatic letter more so than the language. Your stance on foreign aid to Israel has been confusing. You’ve seemed to water down your position on Pentagon spending. Your statement on the drone strikes killing two Americans overseas was disappointing. I’m getting mixed messages on where exactly you stand on the War on Drugs. You implied that accepting gay marriage is a “moral crisis” which is sure to turn away many young people.”
Sanctions. Iran. Israel. I get it, these are extremely difficult issues. What I would ask libertarians to consider when analyzing these matters is twofold: Rand Paul has always described himself as a conservative realist, and the vast majority of Republicans are committed interventionists. Senator Paul is not likely to fully satisfy ideologues on either end of the spectrum, but what he has been doing for libertarians is forcing a debate the GOP would undoubtedly not be having in his absence.
To move the country in a less interventionist direction, Senator Paul cannot be a pure “isolationist” (which he never has been, despite accusations). Yes, this will require a few compromises that some libertarians are likely to find distasteful. At the end of the day however, he is the only Republican presidential candidate who has consistently expressed support for diplomacy over a rush to military conflict with Iran, stated that the Iraq War was a mistake, and noted that the U.S. toppling of secular dictators has inadvertently fueled the growth of ISIS. The value of such pronouncements in the context of a GOP primary cannot be overstated. You don’t have to agree with everything he says to appreciate the direction he is pushing the debate.
Regarding a recent drone strike that killed two Americans, I understand that this might seem like a disconnect given Paul’s famous filibuster. However, he never expressed a fundamental opposition to drones broadly. Rather, Paul critiqued the Obama administration for refusing to be transparent with their use. As you might recall, he got the answer he asked for from Eric Holder, and has been consistent in saying that the general deployment of drones in a war zone is entirely different from a targeted strike of an American citizen absent due process.
On Pentagon spending, a minor amendment to a budget managed to produce wild headlines. As a Paul senior advisor explained, “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. No one should be seeking increased funding for anything by increasing our debt.” There you go, simple as that. Looks like Rubio wants more Pentagon spending, but isn’t willing to offset it with cuts elsewhere. Says lot about his limited government bonafides, no?
When it comes to the War on Drugs, it’s actually incredible how much Rand Paul’s work on criminal justice reform has pushed conservatives in a more libertarian direction. Like foreign policy, this is an issue that needs to be analyzed in context. For decades, Republicans have been perceived as committed to “law and order,” focused on condemning people to federal prison, no questions asked.
It’s now clear to many conservatives that the War on Drugs has done little to get contraband off the streets, and has fueled a further breakdown of the family, not to mention more poverty. Senator Paul has aptly focused on reforms that conservatives can get behind without taking a more extreme approach that would turn off the very people he needs to persuade to push policy in a more libertarian direction.
On the issue of gay marriage as a “moral crisis,” this discussion generated a lot of headlines, but it didn’t generate a lot of context. What Senator Paul told a small gathering of religious leaders was actually something very libertarian. He explained that politicians cannot be trusted to dictate morality; that this burden falls upon our communities and churches.
This is exactly the type of battlefield that limited government advocates with varying social opinions ought to embrace; debate absent government coercion. Personally, I’m more concerned with whether someone wants to get the federal government out of my private life than if they agree with me philosophically on what marriage means.
Analyzing these issues in the context of accepting that many Americans don’t agree with me outright, and that the cause of liberty needs persuasive messengers, has put my mind at ease. I’ve learned to stop worrying whether Senator Paul agrees with me completely, and embrace a strategy that requires contending with people outside of the relatively small libertarian bubble. There’s no person with a real chance of becoming the President of the United States who is better on libertarian issues than Rand Paul. I’m sold on this election as a battle worth fighting.