Political Animal


March 08, 2013 12:32 PM Dissecting Randpaulism

By Ed Kilgore

As a follow-on to my last post, and in recognition of the fact that like it or not (and I don’t), the junior senator from Kentucky is indisputably the Man of the Day, I encourage others to emulate Jonathan Chait’s effort to figure out what the guy actually stands for in the context of a radicalized but not necessarily libertarian Republican Party:

Paul’s sudden ascent represents the convergence of two broad currents of Republican thought. The first is the rise of Ayn Rand-ism, which has become the party’s main ideological response to the Obama years. Randism is an apocalyptic mind-set that conceives of politics as a struggle between makers and takers. Not just Paul himself, but such diverse figures as CNBC shouting head and tea-party father Rick Santelli, Paul Ryan, AEI President Arthur Brooks, and Cruz — who quoted Ayn Rand while enthusiastically leaping to Paul’s defense — have all claimed the deep influence of Rand.
It may seem more surprising that a party that veered so far right on foreign policy under George W. Bush might rally around a figure like Paul. Doesn’t anybody remember Ron Paul consistently drawing mockery from fellow presidential candidates and boos from audiences for his isolationist homilies? Why did Republicans suddenly stop hating this stuff?
One reason is that Paul himself was never exactly libertarian. He opposed the construction of a Muslim cultural center in lower Manhattan, opposed Obama’s attempts to close down the prison at Guantánamo Bay (“These thugs should stand before military tribunals and be kept off American soil”), and even endorsed imprisoning people who attend radical Islamist speeches. What he represents is a particular paleoconservative fear of government being turned against them. Where he has been most at odds with the party base is Israel, and here he has shrewdly and unashamedly remade his position to become acceptable to the base.
Another reason Paul has succeeded is that Republican hawkery was never quite as intellectually coherent as the neoconservatives liked to believe. As Ross Douthat astutely observes, “What Paul seems to understand is that the Republican base doesn’t really have a detailed set of foreign policy positions: What it has, instead, is the cluster of sympathies and instincts (pro-Israel, pro-military, nationalist rather than globalist, fretful about radical Islam, skeptical of international institutions).”

You have to factor in, as I argued in my own post, Paul’s impeccable timing: finding a way to go after the president that was guaranteed to excite Obama-haters, disarm (if not embarrass) many Democrats, and give Republicans frustrated with the relatively small impact of their Benghazi! crusade a fresh chance to score some points on a subject somewhat related to foreign policy. It also probably didn’t hurt that Paul could count on Mitch McConnell handling him with kid gloves at a time when Kentucky wingnuts have been muttering vague threats of resisting the Leader’s re-election.

Chait seems to think Paul’s “moment” will have a very short shelf-life, despite fresh evidence of his strong interest in running for president in 2016. Perhaps he’s right; Paul has a list of extremist statements and associations as long as his arm, and it’s not as though the GOP has its 2012 problem of a potential field loaded with very weak candidates. But I wouldn’t underestimate Rand. It astonished me that he was able to beat a relatively strong primary candidate in Kentucky in 2010 without his foreign policy views sinking him. And nothing’s happened since then to raise doubts about his political instincts. He’ll inherit his father’s famously intense following with significantly less baggage (which says a lot about how much baggage the old man had!). And he has lots of time not only to finesse the issues that could kill him with movement conservatives, and to define Randpaulism according to his own needs.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Peter C on March 08, 2013 12:51 PM:

    I think Rand Paul is popular with Republicans right now because he attacked Obama - full stop. Republicans don't really care about ideas; they care about WINNING and they see attacking Obama as their best strategy. But, when they come to pick a nominee, they'll look at other things, and Paul will look like the freak that he is. Rand Paul is just Michelle Bachmann with a Senator's pin and pants on. If he runs for President, we'll crash and burn like Shelly did.

    I guess I just don't put much stock in the value of being Washington's 'Man of the Day'. For me, that's not a very impressive credential.

  • Peter C on March 08, 2013 12:55 PM:

    'He'll crash and burn'

    I think what we do is point to him and say, 'look at that Nutty REPUBLICAN!' and make his status in the Republican Party closely associated with his lunacy. Then, Republcians have to either claim his nuttiness for their own or disassociate themselves from him.

  • c u n d gulag on March 08, 2013 1:04 PM:

    That boy's ego is as limitless as his intelligence is limited.

    And that's a dangerous combination.

    And of course, because he came out against something President Obama was doing, and got a few Democrats to go along with him, he's getting a hero's welcome from the new "Know Nothing Party," the Republicans/TeaBirchers.

    He's stupid, ignorant, and gullible, but that didn't stop George W. Bush from becoming President.

    W was a chocolate-covered "himbo" hunk of dog-sh*t that was packaged as "Compassionate Conservative Chocolate: Try It. You Might Not Like It, But, It Won't Kill You - Probably."

  • LAC on March 08, 2013 1:09 PM:

    He is only the "Man of the Day" in washington because of a bunch of eunuchs in the press are giving him a ball washing. For the rest of us, he is paranoid weirdo with good bladder control.

    All these "victories" against Obama (so your administration is not blowing up americans in our 24 hour news cycle country? Hurray!) add up to zilch in the public's assessment of GOP and do nothing for the economy in this country, unless you count the number of idiots employed to endlessly blog about it.

  • Citizen Alan on March 08, 2013 1:23 PM:

    I don't think I've done enough good in my life for God to reward me with a 2016 contest between Hillary Clinton and Rand Paul. I don't think anyone in history has done that much good.

  • Pat on March 08, 2013 1:27 PM:

    I still say that liberals should seize this opportunity to define the extent of domestic executive powers during wartime. We're still against unlimited detention, warrantless spying, and torture, right? Let's push Sen. Paul's enthusiasm against Pres. Obama into making laws that can be used to stop the next Vice Pres. Cheney.

  • Tom on March 08, 2013 2:42 PM:

    Rand Paul made a play for the insurrectionist wing of the GOP -- those who believe that sooner or later they will be having to fight the US government. They worry about drones for an entirely different reason than Code Pink does; namely, that one will disrupt their training weekend on that "farm" in the woods somewhere in Missouri.

  • hells littlest angel on March 08, 2013 4:43 PM:

    Sometime between October of 2015 and May of 2016, Rand Paul will briefly be the front-runner in the Republican presidential primary, and then it will be some other fool's turn. The 2016 primary will make the 2012 primary look sane and sober.

  • Sean Scallon on March 10, 2013 2:33 PM:

    Gee, wasn't it only last week that Rand was ridiculed (even by many libertarians) for his John Kerry-like (against-him-before-I-was-for-him) vote on John Hagel? Even I called his apparent antics in the Hagel affair "silly" but now, well what a difference a week makes in politics. Now it seems Rand's the front-runner for the GOP nomination in 2016. Talk about reversal of fortune.

    To understand randpaulism one must have an appreciation of pure politics. The Obama Administration is so hated by ordinary, non-ideological Republicans on top of conservative ideologues that any critiques of the Administration on any policy becomes a useful way for Rand to get his points across and GOP support for them. That's how desperate they are. And when John McCain and Lindsay Graham come charging in screaming "Isolationism!" it only makes Rand more appealing, especially when contrasted to the hated McCain, even if more rank n' file Republicans might agree more on a policy basis with McCain than Paul.

    You can scream "Ayn Rand" all you want but if the Paul movement was Randianism at its purest it would have died in 2007. Ron Paul didn't run for President in order to preach the gospel according to John Galt. His critique was the smaller government conservatives say they want cannot come to fruition if the U.S. continues to spend trillions on national security. The warfare/welfare state is inseparable. This is a view libertarians already had but many conservatives and even a liberal or two have warmed up to since Paul announced his first bid for President in Feb. 2007. Not enough to make him President of course, but certainly enough to make a future career for his son.

    The question over the next four years is whether conservatives will finally accept the fact that an America with a smaller government is not going to stride over the world like a colossus. If they accept this fact, even grudgingly, then there's an opening for Rand to go through. If they cannot. If they think one can have a government with 12 aircraft carrier battle groups but can't deliver the mail, then Rand will eventually fall off the tightrope during a debate or on Meet the Press before the South Carolina primary. This may well mean Rand will emphasize more of what he has in common with conservatives than with libertarians (to their continued dismay). But as Rand's claque often puts it "It's all to advance a larger cause." In other words, politics. We'll see how good he is at it.

  • Sean Scallon on March 10, 2013 3:31 PM:

    "The first is the rise of Ayn Rand-ism, which has become the party’s main ideological response to the Obama years."

    Actually it's more the financial crisis and the Bush II years than the Obama ones, he just happened to be President at the time.

    Paul Ryan was elected to Congress in 1998 and for a decade was pretty much a reliable vote for the DeLay-Hastert-Boehner leadership. This meant supporting such big spending items like the war and Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind. Whether he "liked" supporting such things didn't matter. They were what Karl Rove termed good politics and he was the was Bush II Administration's political director and he was calling the shots, the House simply took orders. From 2006-08 that whole structure which had run the Republicans in the House since Gingrich was overthrown in late 1998 was gone. What was going to replace it? Well looking out and seeing all these Tea Partiers calling for less spending after their tax money was used to bailout billionares (and black home owners if you think they're racists and we know you do), naturally the politicians like Ryan followed. It really doesn't matter if he read the Fountainhead as young boy. So did Alan Greenspan and he ran a central bank. Again, it comes back down to politics. That's why many conservatives now hate Rove so much because they think he was a lousy politician and truth be told they're right. Ryan became a "reformer" as soon as the politics dictated "reform" was the way to go. Otherwise he would have been primaried too.