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May 16, 2013 11:35 AM Can Rand Paul’s “Constitutional Conservative” Coalition Hang Together?

By Ed Kilgore

In the wake of Rand Paul’s trip last week to Iowa, which seemed design to launch (or at least aggressively explore) a 2016 presidential candidacy, certain elements of his potential nomination-campaign coalition are looking at each other with suspicion. As WaPo’s Peter Wallstein noted, he’s been spending a lot of time with conservative evangelicals—earlier in a trip to Israel, and last Friday in meetings orchestrated by Christian Right impresario David Lane—and they want to be assured he’s not some dope-smoking sodomite libertarian:

Some of those same pastors started to get to know Paul in January during a tour of Christian holy sites in Israel. The trip included clergy members and activists — including the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party — from states with early influence in the presidential primaries.
Some who traveled with Paul, a Methodist, said they engaged in deep conversations with him about the Bible and his faith. Several of the pastors said they are still assessing the senator’s views.
“Straight libertarianism has nothing Christian about it,” said pastor Brad Sherman of the Solid Rock Christian Church in Coralville, Iowa, a participant in the Israel trip. “I know a lot of people attribute him to be a libertarian. My impression so far is that he’s not as libertarian as possibly his father was, but I’d like to explore that more.”
Sherman got that chance Friday when he joined other clergy members at the Cedar Rapids lunch to pose pointed questions to Paul. He said he came away liking what he heard. “He made it very clear that he does not support legalization of drugs like marijuana and that he supports traditional marriage,” Sherman said.
David Lane, a longtime organizer of evangelical pastors and voters, who orchestrated the Israel trip and the Friday lunch, said Paul was seeking to demonstrate that he can be a comfortable fit for Christian conservatives despite the more unconventional views of many of his most fervent supporters.
“He’s closer to our philosophy than he is to what I would define as the hyper-libertarian position,” Lane said.

This sort of evangelical outreach is giving the heebie-jeebies to leading libertarian writer Nick Gillespie, who complained in a Daily Beast column that Paul is trying to serve two masters:

How to reconcile this Paul with the galvanizing figure whose 13-hour filibuster on the Senate floor demanded—and got—an unambiguously straight answer from the Obama administration on the possible use of drones to kill Americans? Or the Paul who warned at CPAC that “the GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered … encumbered by an inconsistent approach to freedom” and called on the party to “embrace liberty in both the economic and the personal sphere”?
The gap between his remarks to evangelicals and those directed at the party faithful raise the question: is Rand Paul simply the latest in a long line of Republicans who cultivate libertarian-leaning voters—broadly speaking, people who believe in fiscal conservatism and social liberalism—as they gear up for presidential bids?

Both Wallstein and Gillespie frame the controversy at least in part by wondering if Rand Paul is a different animal than his father. But both probably know this suggestion that libertarians and quasi-theocrats are at each other’s throats when it comes to Republican politics is an exaggeration. Ron Paul had a pretty strong evangelical following himself; his support among Iowa home-schoolers, for example, was key to his political strength there. And both Pauls have had close links to the U.S. Constitution Party, that theocratic organization which basically believes God wants government to defer to the churches on cultural issues and to property-owners on economic issues.

Indeed, after raising questions about Rand Paul’s ultimate ideological commitments, Gillespie offers the most likely answer:

Paul has long preferred to call himself a constitutional conservative rather than a libertarian and, as my Reason colleague Mike Riggs has pointed out, he has never actually embraced pot legalization, even at the state level. Instead, Paul “wants to keep everything illegal, but institute gentler penalties.” With gay marriage, devolving the decision to the state level is consistent with Paul’s orientation toward federalism (though strikingly at odds with his introduction of the Life at Conception Act, which would ban abortions at the federal level).
However technically accurate or defensible, such distinctions are far too Jesuitical to hang a presidential run on—or to revive a party that’s near-death. That’s especially true when dealing with such detail-oriented constituencies as evangelical Christians and libertarians. It’s far more likely that if Paul continues to send significantly different messages to different audiences, he will end up alienating all his possible supporters.

I dunno about that. It may be true that self-identified libertarian and Christian Right leaders want their politicians to wear their labels proudly and unambiguously, and it’s also true that a lot of the young Ron Paul Revolution activists who have been so conspicuous on the Right in recent years probably don’t see themselves as comrades-in-arms with the David Lanes of the political world. But from everything we know about the Tea Party Movement, its ideological beating heart is indeed the “constitutional conservatism” that sees no contradiction in wanting a government that simultaneously stays out of economic affairs while championing “traditional values” is a very aggressive and oppressive manner. From their point of view, Divine Providence via the Founders laid out an eternal governing blueprint in the Declaration of Independence and the original Constitution that equally protects the “unborn” and the “intermediate institutions” of church and family on the one hand, and absolute private property rights on the other.

This is the rich vein of support Rand Paul is trying to tap, and the fact that some observers want to slap a “libertarian” label on him and apply litmus tests to confirm or rebut that identification may be little more than a distraction.

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.

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