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
For two years now Rand Paul has walked a tightrope between a particular strain of libertarian ideology and an agenda with broad appeal. So far he’s avoided the temptations of both the fringe and the GOP establishment. The rewards will be great if he can keep his balance. Indeed, he could turn out to be one of the most important conservative statesmen in decades.
Despite what you might have heard, the third of Ron and Carol Paul’s five children isn’t named after the bestselling Objectivist writer Ayn Rand. His parents named him Randal, which his wife shortened to Rand. He was born on January 7, 1963, in Pittsburgh. When he was five the Paul family moved to Lake Jackson, Texas.
His childhood was happy. He swam, mowed lawns, and worked at a miniature golf course. “My parents’ love and support has been unconditional,” Paul writes in his book The Tea Party Goes to Washington, “and I remain very much my father’s son.” He questioned authority from an early age. “I think some people are naturally more individualistic than others and are probably born that way,” he told me.
The liberal history taught in school did not impress him. “If I was taught that the Great Depression was caused by capitalism,” he said, “I wanted to know what are the arguments on both sides. I would never take just an answer from a teacher or a professor saying, ‘This is why capitalism failed,’ or ‘This is why the great industrialists were robber barons.’ ” He learned a different narrative from his father.
Rand was 11 years old when his dad ran for Congress for the first time in 1974. Ron Paul lost that race, but won a special election for the same seat in 1976. That year Rand traveled with his family to the Republican convention in Kansas City. His father was one of four congressmen to endorse Ronald Reagan over Gerald Ford. “I’ll always remember that, much like my father today, Reagan in 1976 was considered by many establishment types to be outside the ‘mainstream’ of the Republican party,” he writes. The definition of “mainstream,” he learned, changes over time.
When Rand turned 17, his father gave him the Ayn Rand novels: We the Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged. He read them all. As an undergraduate at Baylor University he minored in English. His favorite novelist was Dostoyevsky. He read a lot of poetry. “My favorite poem, I don’t know why, is ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by Eliot,” he said. His taste in political theory was similar to his father’s: “I read a lot of the other things that influenced libertarian conservatives,” he said. “Bastiat, Murray Rothbard, von Mises, Hayek.”
Rand zipped through Baylor in two years. “I wasn’t a perfect kid,” he said. “I went out and drank beer and probably did some other things, too.” But he was a good student: He got into Duke Medical School, one of the top programs in the country. He wanted to be an eye surgeon. After Duke he interned at a hospital in Atlanta. One day he went to an oyster roast at a friend’s house. He was talking to someone about Dostoyevsky when a young woman joined the conversation. Rand was smitten. He and Kelley Ashby went on their first date the next day and got married a year later, in 1990. They have three sons.
Rand and Kelley settled in Bowling Green, Kentucky, to be near her family. He opened his ophthalmology practice, joined the Lions Club International, and founded Kentucky Taxpayers United, a group devoted to limited government. Mainly, though, he stayed out of the headlines.
The Pauls’ version of libertarianism—Austrian economics married to a noninterventionist foreign policy and a radical critique of centralized government—had few supporters nationwide. In 2005, as Brian Doherty was completing his book on the libertarian movement, he didn’t think it necessary to devote more than a few pages to Ron Paul. “At that point Ron Paul just seemed like this curious little weird outlier,” Doherty said. Rand didn’t rate a mention in Radicals for Capitalism.
What changed things was the Iraq war. The bloody insurgency and sectarian strife that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein drained President Bush’s energy and his support at home. The war opened a fissure—small at first—between Beltway Republicans and parts of the conservative grassroots. Young people in particular turned against the conflict. They found one another on YouTube, MySpace, and Facebook. They wondered when Republicans became the party of No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D. They wanted no part of compassionate conservatism or George W. Bush’s flailing presidency.