Rare Politics comes from a libertarian-conservative perspective, so naturally we were disappointed when the most libertarian candidate dropped out of the Republican presidential primary.
In his first national interview since leaving the race, I sat down with Senator Rand Paul to look back on his campaign, talk about what went wrong and perhaps most importantly—what the future holds for the liberty movement.
Sen. Paul was upbeat and optimistic, not what you might expect to find in a candidate that fought hard for the nomination but who’s campaign ended with disappointing results.
Rand Paul says despite the fact that his presidential run is over, his liberty message is still winning.
What does he mean?
Rare: You have many passionate supporters, particularly young people, who feel like they don’t have a candidate now that you’re gone. Some still plan to vote for you. Some are looking at other candidates. Some vow to stay home.
This is your first opportunity to talk directly to them since leaving the race—what would you like to say?
Rand Paul: That I was amazed at the outpouring of support, and I think in some ways it wasn’t as well documented by a lot of the media, what kind of support we got from the college students.
The Students for Rand group, I think we had 500 college campuses. It was a big effort. At any point in time in the last couple of weeks, in the Des Moines headquarters, we’d have 300 or 400 college students making phone calls.
I know some of them were probably disappointed that we weren’t able to go on. But we felt like we needed to exceed expectations. We were polling around 5 percent, and we got 5 percent. The good news is we beat several establishment figures, Bush, Kasich, Christie and Fiorina. But, we didn’t feel like we had enough momentum to go on and do better in New Hampshire.
So we had to make that decision really, that’s the U.S. Senate, for now. I’m running for re-election and so I have to continue with that same message and same energy but really on a state level, not the national level.
Rare: So maybe you would recommend them being invested in your senate campaign?
Well they can be, (the senator said, grinning) we’ll still have opportunities for people to come to Kentucky and help us.
But also we want them to continue with the groups they started on the college campuses. Its’ really not so much about an individual, it’s about this liberty movement, which are ideas. And you know, the famous saying ‘ideas have consequences,’ or that ideas are stronger than armies.
That is our hope, that people will get involved in the liberty movement, and that this movement grows over time to someday be dominant enough to have a nominee of a major party.
Rare: In 2014, the New York Times said we might be on the verge of a “libertarian moment” in our politics. When you left the race, critics were eager to say the libertarian moment was over. What do you say to those critics?
Rand Paul: I think they oversimplify things. If you ask what are the issues and ideas that are part of the ‘libertarian moment’ or the liberty moment, I would put in there a constitutional foreign policy or a more reasonable foreign policy. I think we’re winning on that issue.
If you ask the general public now, after the Republican debates and really after a little bit of the Democrat debates: Is it a good idea to have regime change? Is it a good idea to topple Gaddafi in Libya? Are we safer or less safe? Is the region more stable or more chaotic?
I think the facts on the ground—we’re actually winning on that.
If you ask them, should we go into Syria now and topple Assad? Would we be better off? I think now many people are asking the follow up question, which is ‘what happens after Assad?’ Maybe ISIS actually grows stronger or fills that vacuum? Maybe arming the allies of ISIS also helped ISIS to grow stronger?
So I think we’re winning on that debate.
The fact that I didn’t win the election, I don’t think represents whether those ideas are winning. Because in presidential politics, I can’t tell you how many times people come up to say they agree, even people who didn’t vote for me.
Since I’ve been more active in some meetings here in Washington, some people come up to me from both sides who are very complimentary as to the ideas and issues and saying ‘don’t stop talking about foreign policy, don’t stop talking about criminal justice reform.’
So I think we can win the issues battles sometimes and not win an election.
Rare: Do you think you were able to sway the conversation at all? In some ways, it seems like Donald Trump killed it.
Rand Paul: I think he dominated the superficial news cycle. And the superficial news cycle is something that is becoming more and more superficial over time, where I don’t think people are really debating ideas. He’s winning in that venue because he was on TV 25 more times than the rest of us combined. So people find that intriguing somehow, but I don’t think he’s winning any kind of issues battle or any kind of ideas battle. I think we are winning on that.
I can tell you as I traveled across the country, many of the people, even some who did not support the presidential campaign are already calling up and saying ‘you know what, I didn’t want this to mean that I didn’t support you or the issues’ and many of those people are coming back now and are saying ‘because you’ve been a leader on criminal justice reform, on a more reasonable foreign policy, I want to support you in the senate.’
Rare: When your dad ran, and The Atlantic’s Conor Friederdorf has pointed this out, he was the only one calling the Iraq war a mistake—and was attacked viciously for it. In this election, Trump calls the Iraq war a mistake. Ted Cruz criticizes “neocons” and denounces regime change.
Both these men have also said hawkish things—but do you feel like the GOP is coming your way on foreign policy?
Rand Paul: I think so. Particularly the fact that Trump does not think it’s a liability to stand up there and say ‘hey, I was right on opposing the Iraq war.’ I wish he was of the same opinion of the current Iraq war. I think that idea has gradually transformed to where it’s safe in a Republican primary to say that.
You can listen to some of Ted Cruz’s answers on regime change and you can hear words almost identical to things I’ve said.
Now I don’t agree with the concept of the carpet-bombing and the ‘make the sand glow’ stuff, but still, when you hear him he’s a little bit of both. So they’re incorporating some of the liberty ideas, and yeah never get to sort of take your entire platform and imprint it. You try to get bits and pieces of it accepted by people over time.
Rare: At Rare recently, young black Republican activist Antonia Okafor wrote: “I was heartbroken when Rand Paul announced last week that he was suspending his presidential campaign. Him leaving meant more than just losing my preferred candidate. It meant losing the only person who really seemed to care about outreach in the Republican Party.”
What would you say to Antonia and young black men and women like her?
Rand Paul: The war on drugs has been an overbearing, big government abuse of our civil liberties, but the one thing that I came to learn over the last year or two is we should oppose it for the reasons that criminal justice has had a disproportionate impact on the African American community.
That’s something I learned, some by meeting people in Kentucky and other places who tell me they had an arrest 20 years ago and it still affects their ability to vote and their ability to have employment. I think this is something that even most of the Democrat party does not understand at all about the African American community, is that the biggest impediment in our country to voting, when you talk about voting rights—this isn’t 1964 or 1956 anymore—the biggest impediment to voting in our country is having had a criminal record. Bar none. I think the biggest impediment to getting a job in our country is also a criminal record. So this is a huge issue.
What I’m finding is that there’s a huge opening for us within the African American community because Democrats take the vote for granted and Republicans think they can’t get any of the African American vote. So Republicans don’t show up, but neither do Democrats.
When I’ve showed up in the South Side of Chicago with an African American pastor who is now a Republican, talking about school choice, economic opportunity and criminal justice reform, not everybody’s saying ‘Oh, I want to be a Republican’ but they are saying ‘You know what? We want somebody to compete for our vote.’
I hear the same thing on the west side of Louisville, people are excited that we’re going to try to compete for their vote.
Rare: In the last debate you appeared in, black YouTube star Mark Watson asked about race and police brutality—you were the only candidate on stage who even answered—Republicans won’t talk about the racial dimension, the legitimate oppression of minorities by local authorities.
Why are Republicans so afraid to talk about this?
Rand Paul: Some of it I think is the idea that Republicans have just looked at one side of the issue for so long that they haven’t been open to looking at both sides. I think it’s hard to be human and not see the human side of what’s going on with Eric Garner’s death in New York. Above and beyond the racial aspect of it is big government. It’s big government saying ‘We’re going to have these authoritarian laws on selling a cigarette on the streets,’ and it’s like my goodness—to take someone down and choke them and have them die because you think they’re selling loose cigarettes? Which it turns out that, on that day, there was no evidence that he was doing anything other than standing there.
That’s too much power to be giving to our police forces. Too much over the top aggressive tactics.
But not all of it is about race either. We make a mistake if we make it all about that.
Rare: Reason’s Matt Welch has noted that, “The largest single issue of concern named by Republican voters in entrance polls in Iowa was government spending, clocking in at 32%.” Far more than immigration.
You touted yourself as the only fiscal conservative in the race—what happened?
Rand Paul: Well I think people are concerned with spending and I guess the question is, do they understand that many of the Republicans are for increased spending? We tried to make that clear, but the question is are they really willing to accept it, or are they really just saying ‘I’m really only against the spending I don’t like, I’m for the spending I like.’
Part of the problem is that many people think ‘Oh, I’ll balance the budget by cutting food stamps.’ Well, that won’t balance the budget. You have to look at all spending. Not only do you have to look at domestic and military spending, you also have to look at the entitlements. Entitlements are two-thirds of the budget. And if you’re not willing to look at entitlement spending, the budget never balances.
Rare: The tea party’s focus was “stop spending” and smaller government. Has the tea party become distracted or moved on?
Rand Paul: The tea party is no longer having huge rallies. So maybe some of their enthusiasm has dampened. But some of the enthusiasm may have been dampened in that they elected Republicans to run the House and the Senate and the debt got worse.
Rare: Do you think there’s a danger, depending on who’s the Republican nominee or who becomes the next president, that we could go back to another big spending Republican administration like the last one?
Rand Paul: Yes, I mean that’s the whole problem we have. That’s why it’s important which Republican ends up winning the nomination. It’s also why the message that I’ve continued to put out there has to be continued. We can’t just say entitlements—we’re not doing anything to fix the entitlements—but we also have to say that all of the discretionary spending, domestic and military, if we truly are conservatives we have to look at military spending.
Rare: Many of the young people who might have supported Ron Paul in the past went for Bernie Sanders this year. You’ve worked with Democrat senators Cory Booker on criminal justice reform and Ron Wyden on rolling back the surveillance state. Part of the liberty message has always been taking the best parts of right and left and combining them.
Is there an argument to be made for liberty candidates running as Democrats?
Rand Paul: I would probably question whether a lot of the voters that voted for my dad went to Bernie Sanders. When we have looked at (Ron Paul’s) voters and found out where they went, some of it went to Trump. Some of it went to Cruz. Some of it went to us. So, some of it split three ways in the Republican primary.
I’m not convinced a lot vote for Bernie Sanders because socialism is antithetical to freedom. It’s antithetical to everything my dad stood for.
Rare: So do you think it’s fair to say that die-hard Ron Paul supporters are probably not supporting Sanders?
Rand Paul: I think it’s a combination. I think it’s split three ways in the Republican primary, even more actually. We found they went other places as well.
I think some of them must just say ‘You know what? I’m not voting for any Republican this time, I’m voting for the libertarian.’ So that’s a couple percentage points as well. Are there some left-leaning libertarians that might vote for Bernie Sanders? Maybe. But I think on the totality if looking at what government does, somebody who believes that government should own all of the means of production? There’s very little freedom of any kind left with that.
Hayek wrote about, you really have no political liberty if you have no economic liberty. Can you have political liberty under socialism? I don’t think you really can.
Rare: You’ve frequently said the GOP must “evolve or die?” To bring in new people, a broader coalition—young, old, black, brown, tattoos and long hair—Is the party even close to evolving? Or is it dying?
Rand Paul: I think it’s still unknown which direction we’re going to take. But if you look at demographics, how we’re mixed as far as race is concerned, I think 30 or 40 years ago 90 percent of voters where white. Now it’s like 60 percent. You see the Republican Party’s trajectory, they keep getting more and more of the white vote, but getting less and less of every other vote. And I don’t think it has to be about race, but I think that if you’re unaware that’s happening and you don’t do something to combat it and you don’t do something to take your message out, that’s a mistake.
Sometimes people have misinterpreted my outreach efforts, they say ‘you’re doing this just to get more votes’ and I say ‘well, I am running for office.’ So I am trying to get more votes. But I’m also trying to take a message that I truly believe in, that’s the same message I ran on five or six years ago and trying to take that message just to audiences that haven’t traditionally been open to a Republican message.
Rare: What will the rest of this election look like without the liberty message?
Rand Paul: I don’t know what will happen. I think some of the message will be co-opted. And that’s good.
So if people continue to talk about their opposition to regime change. I hope people will continue to understand that the Iraq war was a mistake.
If people will talk about criminal justice reform—I’m afraid that issue’s gone from the presidential primary. Although I will say that there were some of the other candidates who came up to me after my response in that last debate and said that they were supportive of what I was trying to do on that.
I will say that many of sort of the donor class to the Republican Party that did not support my presidential campaign have come up to me, during the election and subsequently and say ‘We really appreciate what you’re doing on criminal justice, keep doing it. We appreciate that you’re trying to expand the party to different people.’
I think it’s a huge mistake to oversimplify and say, ‘your criminal justice reform wasn’t popular’ or ‘your foreign policy wasn’t popular.’ People’s decision making processes are much more complicated.
Rare: So it’s fair to say that behind the scenes, people who might not have thought about these liberty ideas before were now coming up to you and saying they like them. Were attracted to these, at least to them, new ideas?
Rand Paul: Yeah, I think so.
Rare: What surprised you most about running for president?
Rand Paul: Probably how accepted the message was. For example, I tell people all the time that I was involved when my dad ran for president as the Libertarian Party candidate in 1987. In those days, if you walked up to somebody in a Wal-Mart and said say ‘Hey, would you sign and elect to put the Libertarian candidate on the ballot’ they would look at you like you had two heads.
Now you’ll find the opposite. You’ll find people who aren’t very libertarian who will say, ‘I’m pretty libertarian on this or I’m libertarian on that’ because they know the issue or the term is one that people actually want to be associated with.
Rare: Is there anything you would’ve done differently?
Rand Paul: People look back on elections and want to say ‘the campaign did this wrong or you should’ve hired this person.’ No, I think we ran a fine campaign and we worked hard.
I don’t think it’s a failure of message. I don’t think it’s a failure of technique. If I would say there was one thing that we couldn’t overcome it was sort of the cult of celebrity. The cult of celebrity consumed the news media, and people could say I’m complaining, but it just is what it is. I think it was very hard for our message to get beyond the cult of celebrity because the news cycle became consumed by that.
Rare: Any final thoughts or anything you’d like to say directly to your supporters and the liberty movement?
Rand Paul: Mainly, not to be discouraged. I am more encouraged by what I saw of the outpouring of support on college campuses and across the country, and even from people you wouldn’t expect.
People have to understand our support isn’t 5 percent. The support for some of these issues might be 30, 40 and 50 percent. But they may have made their decision on another candidate.
So for example, this is what’s hard for people to understand: They asked the question in Iowa about a year ago, “Do you support more John McCain’s idea of more involvement in foreign wars, or do you support Rand Paul and less involvement?’ The polling was split almost equally in Iowa. I think my position got 41 percent, McCain 45 percent, and you say ‘Well why didn’t you get 41 percent of the vote?’
The reason is the 41 percent who support me on this issue may be trumped by another issue. So maybe their unhappiness with anybody in Washington trumped their unhappiness with foreign intervention. They still agree with me on that issue, as does maybe half of the party, but they still went another way and we only got 5 percent of them.
So don’t get discouraged—liberty lives on to fight another day.
Disclosure: I co-authored Senator Rand Paul’s 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington.
All photos by Jati Lindsay.