Paul nudging GOP in libertarian direction

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s now-official presidential campaign is bringing new attention to libertarian ideas. At least to some libertarians, the first question is whether Rand Paul is in fact a libertarian.

I know a lot of libertarians declaring that although they supported Rep. Ron Paul’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, they can’t back his son in his more plausible 2016 campaign.

They say Rand isn’t really a libertarian. Sometimes they point out that he has never described himself as a libertarian. He said he wants “a libertarian influence in the Republican Party.”

Alternatively, he could be entirely sincere in his public positions, both the libertarian ones and the not-so-libertarian ones. The reason this is irrelevant is because he is operating in the Senate and in his campaign on a particular set of issues, and in all likelihood that’s how he would govern if elected president.

What matters for his campaign is whether he can find a winning coalition for that combination of issues.

Paul was elected to the Senate in 2010 on the momentum of his father’s very libertarian campaign. Unlike his father, he’s not running for president to educate and mobilize. He is running to win.

He has decided to work within the system and nudge the GOP in a libertarian direction on the issues where progress is (politically) possible. He pushes for a real commitment to smaller government and less spending, introducing a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. Along with a growing number of conservatives, he’s trying to move our criminal justice system away from mandatory minimums and mass incarceration. He’s campaigning against indiscriminate surveillance and the growing use of drone strikes.

But on several issues this balancing act risks alienating his libertarian base. His recent comments on gay marriage — “personally offended” and “moral crisis” — created a libertarian backlash. Unlike Paul, most libertarians support abortion rights. But voters for whom abortion and gay marriage are deal-breakers aren’t likely to be voting in Republican primaries.

But conservative writer Michael Brendan Dougherty said libertarians should understand that Paul is “inching” the GOP in his direction: “Paul often offers rhetorical hostility instead of sanctions, sanctions instead of conflict and limited constitutionally authorized conflict instead of open-ended war.” Sort of a Fabian approach to non-interventionism.

Paul doesn’t claim to be a libertarian, and he takes positions that many libertarians disagree with. But on a broad range of issues, from spending and regulation to government spying, drug wars and military intervention, he has a more libertarian policy agenda than any major candidate in memory.

That will garner him the lion’s share of his father’s supporters who, among other things, donated $40 million in contributions to the 2012 campaign.

David Boaz is the executive vice president of the Cato Institute and the author of The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom and the editor of The Libertarian Reader. Send comments to [email protected].