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Rand Paul’s Balancing Act

The new senator from Kentucky is not his father’s clone—or is he?

May 30, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 35 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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I was interviewing Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky on February 17, in his temporary office in the Russell building on Capitol Hill, when his chief of staff Doug Stafford entered the room.

Rand Paul, Ron Paul

Rand and Ron Paul, October, 2010

AP / Ed Reinke

“Just giving you about a two-minute warning,” he said. “Maybe five. They’re going to do John McCain’s amendment first, and then yours. Once McCain is speaking, I’ll come in and get you and we can roll right over.”

Paul acknowledged him, then leaned back in his chair. His desk was littered with papers. A portrait of his father, congressman Ron Paul, hung on the wall behind him. A bookshelf was filled with free-market classics. He’d been reflecting on the Tea Party movement in Kentucky. The Tea Party’s amorphous nature, Paul had been saying, was not only a strength but also a weakness. The various groups marching under the Gadsden flag were often at odds. “I want them to coalesce and be the Kentucky Tea Party so they can have more influence,” he said, “and they sort of resist and do things by city.”

The friendly criticism was an illustration of Rand Paul’s approach to politics. In 2010, as an ophthalmologist who had never run for office, Paul was propelled to victory thanks to connections to his father and the Tea Party. As founder of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, he is perhaps more associated with the movement than any other freshman Republican. He has led opposition to renewal of the Patriot Act, quoted Ayn Rand from his seat on the energy committee, called for $500 billion in cuts in discretionary spending this year, said that to believe in a “right” to health care “means you believe in slavery,” and released a plan to balance the budget in five years. Not exactly a shrinking violet.

Yet Paul has a cool and pragmatic streak. He has a talent for networking, coalition building, and political maneuvering that—maybe you’ve noticed—many in the Tea Party and Ron Paul troop lack. While the substance of his positions is barely distinguishable from his father’s, and his goal of “constitutional government” is entirely in accord with the Tea Party, Paul avoids the fiery jeremiads and utopian demands of his allies. He’s willing to talk to and work with people who disagree with him. (Ron Paul’s office did not respond to my requests for an interview.) He realizes that tearing the federal government apart is impracticable. “I’m for incremental change,” he told me.

Take the amendment that Paul was going to support on the Senate floor. “It’s to keep the FAA exempt from OSHA,” he explained. “It’s just another ridiculous thing the Democrats are doing.” The Federal Aviation Administration voluntarily adopts the workplace standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. But the Democrats want to enshrine the regulations in law and punish the FAA when it fails to comply. “There’s nothing to do with safety,” Paul said. “All it has to do with is adding more paperwork to the airlines.” He riffled through some papers. “And I’ve got a list here that I’m going to use on the floor.” He began to read. “Bankruptcies since 2000: TWA, US Air, United Airlines, US Air again, Aloha, Northwest, Delta, MAXjet—I mean, we don’t need to be adding paperwork and expense.”

Stafford appeared in the doorway: Time to go.

We made our way through the labyrinth of tunnels that connect the Senate office buildings to the Capitol. Paul walked with purpose, as if consciously trying to project a senatorial air. Virginia’s junior Democratic senator, Mark Warner, approached from the opposite direction. The two exchanged collegial nods.

Here was another difference between Paul and his father. Whereas Ron Paul is a lone wolf, Rand has quickly developed working relationships with several other senators. Nor is his circle limited to conservative stalwarts like Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Mike Lee of Utah. He’s collaborated with Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “Rand is incredibly practical and principled,” Graham told me. “I have found him to be very engaged in trying to build coalitions. He is much more than just saying ‘No.’ ”

The genius of Rand Paul is that, by picking his battles and finessing his message, he earns mainstream credibility without jettisoning his small-government and non-interventionist bonafides. “I think he’s been great,” Brian Doherty told me. Doherty’s an editor at Reason magazine and the author of Radicals for Capitalism, a history of American libertarianism. “He’s been surprisingly excellent as a rhetorician for the ideas.” Doherty’s boss at Reason, editor in chief Matt Welch, has a cover story in the June issue on Paul. “He has done more to inject libertarian ideas into the Washington debate than any senator I can remember,” writes Welch, “all within his first three months in office.” 

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