Rand Paul's libertarian cred under the microscope

By Holly LaFon, Medill News Service  |  April 20, 2015 at 6:57 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 20 (UPI) -- Though Sen. Rand Paul has already emerged as an outspoken voice in the 2016 presidential race, the success of his campaign may hinge on his ability to appeal to different stripes of Republican and libertarian. So far, the Libertarian Party seems split over him.

"I still think a lot of Libertarians would feel that they couldn't necessarily trust him," Libertarian Party chairman Nicholas Sarwark said. "That they couldn't tell whether he was telling the truth to them or us."

The Libertarian Party, which calls itself the nation's third largest political party with 250,000 registered voters, supports individual liberty and limited government. Paul's father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who endorses a strict brand of libertarianism except on abortion, has run for office on both a Republican and Libertarian ticket.

In some cases Rand Paul, a first-term senator from Kentucky, compromises by knitting together disparate views and logic from both camps.

Sarwark specifically highlighted Paul's views on foreign intervention. Earlier in his career Paul swung more toward the official libertarian view, that the U.S. should sustain only a sufficient military force to defend against aggression, while avoiding entanglements abroad. More recently, Sarwark says, Paul has come out in support of using force in the Middle East.

On gay rights, Paul has supported pushing the decision on same-sex marriage back to the states, rather than arguing the libertarian stance that individuals should have freedom to decide who to marry. Both his approaches to foreign intervention and gay rights represent an attempt to court both conservative Republicans and libertarians, Sarwark argued.

"He's done some good work on trying to rein back drone warfare, so he does have these flashes of libertarian positions, and I wish him all the best in getting the Republican nomination because he is the best they have to do, but the best is not good enough for a libertarian," Sarwark said.

But others from the libertarian camp see Paul's views differently.

"There's a libertarian perfectionist and a libertarian realist," said Brian Doherty, senior editor at the libertarian Reason Magazine.

"The perfectionist sees it as more educational than political. This idea that you need to stand for liberty across the board, do not compromise and politics maybe will follow," he added.

Painted this way, the terms have a nice grammatical flow: Paul can describe himself as a "libertarian Republican" rather than define himself solely as a libertarian.

And some of his views make sense under such a label. For instance, Paul is softer on marijuana regulation, but not entirely for the libertarian reason of prohibiting government intervention in personal matters. Rather, Paul has argued that harsh punishment for drug infractions has ruined people's lives.

"He's arguing a kind of libertarian goal but not in libertarian terms," Doherty said. "And that upsets some people."

Libertarian realists, Doherty said, accept that having a candidate with any libertarian values at all represents a victory. Paul will win the libertarian vote because party members are excited enough to see a serious player championing some of their values.

"If you want libertarian policy victories, you can't worry whether you have a real libertarian candidate," Doherty said. "Because a libertarian candidate's never going to win."

A libertarian from the Democratic Party and former Democratic National Committee press secretary, Terry Michael, thinks Paul has to appeal to a Republican party that has become striated.

"Paul is less a libertarian than he is a politician," he said. "When he was elected to public office, he had to appeal to four different segments of the Republican party:" Main Street, Wall Street, social conservative religious right Republicans and hawkish neo-conservatives.

He also believes Paul may capture some of the millennial vote, many of whom identify as libertarian, or are what he calls "functionally libertarian."

"I think he's doing it fairly simply," Michael said, adding that young voters will probably like Paul's economic views and his less oppositional stance on gay civil marriage. "I think if he [Paul] starts sounding more hawkish where people are just totally tired of 60 to 70 years of wars, that could be a problem."

Michael also said both Paul and fellow candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., are in the same place Obama was at the time of his candidacy, with little time in higher public office.

"It's kind of unusual," he said, "but Obama broke that barrier that people don't care about experience or age."

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