Rand Paul: The promise and perils of libertarianism

The extreme, anti-government ideology of Paul and other Tea Party candidates may scare off the independent voters Republicans need to win seats in the Senate and the House this fall. 

“That didn’t take long,” said Larry Keeling in the Lexington, Ky., Herald-Leader. Just one day after libertarian and Tea Party hero Rand Paul celebrated his 24-point win in Kentucky’s GOP senate primary, he was in full damage-control mode. In an interview, Paul stated that the 1964 Civil Rights Act had infringed on the rights of businesses by not letting them discriminate against blacks, causing an uproar that forced him to deny being a racist. Just as that controversy was subsiding, Paul called President Obama “un-American” for criticizing BP’s handling of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and opined that spills and coal-mining disasters shouldn’t be blamed on private companies, since “accidents happen.” All of which puts the Republican Party in a tight spot, said Nolan Finley in The Detroit News. The GOP “is counting on Tea Party voters to help carry them to big gains this fall.” But if that means embracing the extreme, anti-government ideology of Paul and other Tea Party candidates, they’ll scare off the independent voters they need to win seats in the Senate and the House.

Paul’s comments were admittedly “offensive, tone-deaf, and politically crazy,” said Ross Douthat in The New York Times. But they don’t represent the views of the Republican Party, or even those of most Tea Partiers. Like his father, the stridently libertarian politician Ron Paul, Rand is a principled purist—a throwback to the isolationist, anti-war, personal-freedom-loving dinosaurs who hated FDR, the New Deal, and the U.S.’s entry into World War II. The Pauls don’t just believe taxes are too high. They consider “nearly everything today’s federal government does a violation of the Founding Fathers’ vision.” Rand Paul, for example, takes a dim view of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wants to scrap the Department of Education, the Federal Reserve, and the Americans With Disabilities Act—all in the name of freedom. That’s why libertarianism “has never been—and probably never will be—a national political force,” said Michael Gerson in The Washington Post. Paul may well win a Senate seat in Kentucky this November, but his extremism makes it unlikely he’ll wield much influence, either over Congress or the GOP.

Don’t be so sure, said Robert Schlesinger in USNews.com. Tea Partiers love him, and what “if the Tea Party crowd succeeds in nominating a string of ideologically rigid candidates?” The Republican establishment will then face the unappetizing choice of either tacking hard to the right or explicitly distancing itself from a movement that represents millions of fired-up voters. In choosing Paul, said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post, Kentucky primary voters rejected a more mainstream Republican—making it clear “that the Tea Party movement does not intend to become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party.”

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Paul’s ascendance is “hardly good news for President Obama and the Democrats, either,” said Frank Rich in The New York Times. His landslide in Kentucky is an ominous reminder of the “populist rage” waiting to express itself at the ballot box in November. Democrats should indeed be worried, said The Washington Times in an editorial. Paul’s greatest handicap as a candidate—his unflinching “intellectual honesty”—will be a huge asset in the Senate, and a “serious threat to the Left’s agenda.” Once voters finally get to see a senator who votes consistently against any legislation “that spends money we don’t have or that lacks any basis in the Constitution,” they may just demand more of them.

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