During his ill-fated presidential run, Rand Paul tried to stretch his brand of libertarianism to appeal to a broader audience. He talked tougher about engaging the Islamic State, undercut diplomacy with Iran and called for cutting domestic programs to pay for more defense spending.
Now, nearly three months after he pulled the plug on a presidential campaign that peaked at least a year too soon, Paul has resumed his role as the Senate’s libertarian-minded contrarian. And the 53-year-old eye doctor appears quite content, relieved of any need to soft-pedal his ideas for a national audience and ready to settle in to the Senate for the long haul.
In a recent interview in his Capitol office, adorned with magazine covers documenting the Kentucky Republican’s meteoric rise, a relaxed Paul lounged in a chair and spoke with excitement about the prospect of being the Senate’s leading libertarian voice on international policy and surveillance issues for another six years. He’s favored to win reelection this fall and scoffed at criticisms leveled by his Democratic opponent that he’s running a permanent presidential campaign, with his Senate seat as a launchpad.
Though he wouldn’t slam the door shut on another national bid, Paul sounded wary, saying it would be a “surprise” if it happened.
“It’s hard to ask somebody who just spent a lot of effort being here and there and being everywhere in between about doing it again. It’s not something that I can immediately say, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m looking forward to 2020,’” Paul said, even as he conceded that “2020 would be perfect for an ophthalmologist.”
“It’s a never say never,” Paul said, but “really all I can see in the near-term future is making sure I do a good job for Kentucky. I’m running for reelection, and then I want to be a big voice in the Senate.”
The soft-spoken Paul has been a big voice in his party ever since he beat Mitch McConnell’s hand-picked candidate in the 2010 Senate primary, and he’s showing no signs that a serious challenge from Democratic Lexington Mayor Jim Gray will force him to concentrate on parochial issues. Paul’s formed an alliance with liberal Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut to force the Senate to focus on foreign aid to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and this month persuaded a majority of his caucus to back his plan to lower taxes in poverty-stricken areas. That was a milestone for his “Economic Freedom Zones” proposal, intended to help revitalize the inner cities of places like Detroit.
It’s the kind of work Paul hoped would bring wins in New Hampshire and Iowa just a few months ago. His vision of the Republican Party captivated much of the Washington chattering class as he visited West Louisville, Michigan and liberal enclaves from California and Maryland to promote his new brand of Republicanism ahead of his presidential bid. But Donald Trump’s blustery rhetoric, though rooted in much of the same noninterventionist logic, overshadowed Paul’s voice in the presidential campaign. Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, meanwhile, more overtly courted the party’s hawkish wing.
That left Paul in the unenviable position of trying to tack to the center without straying too far from his core beliefs. People who know him well say he is at peace with how everything turned out, despite the hype and the disappointing finish.
Brian Darling, a former aide who speaks to Paul regularly, attended an event after Paul’s campaign wrapped up in February at the D.C. headquarters. The vibe was funereal for everyone — except Paul.
“Everybody was very upset,” Darling recalled. “But he seemed relieved and happy.”
These days, it’s clear that Paul the senator is no longer concerned with the triangulation required amid a presidential campaign.
In the interview, he lashed the intelligence apparatus and senators in both parties for being too deferential to national security honchos. The leaders of the National Security Agency and the military aren’t elected, and Paul says “there needs to be more pushback” against the status quo by senators.
“We’re not probably going to see military troops on the street in our country, but in all reality we have seen the intelligence agencies abusing their authority and escaping civilian oversight,” Paul said. “There’s been a tendency really in both parties to be very, very acquiescent to what the intelligence community wants.”
Paul said he isn’t pursuing a seat on the Intelligence Committee (he doesn’t think he’d be allowed on anyway). Instead, he’s focused on using his perch on the Foreign Relations Committee to force votes that often make Republicans roll their eyes. Taking on arm sales to Pakistan just a month after ending his campaign was a stark reminder to his colleagues that while he may be quiet in the GOP caucus lunchrooms these days, Paul is determined to be heard on the Senate floor through his tactical savvy and stubborn insistence that he get the votes he demands.
“It’s classic Rand Paul,” said Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.).
While his GOP colleagues scoff at his proposals to deny F-16 sales to Pakistan, cut aid to Egypt and restrict refugees from dozens of countries, Republicans still admire Paul’s forthrightness. And he’ll likely never call the GOP leader a liar, a la Ted Cruz, or launch a surprise leadership bid that rattles his caucus, like Mike Lee.
As GOP Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi puts it, “Rand is genteel.”
“He’s got a point of view, and he makes it strongly, and he knows, I think, how far it’s appropriate to take things. You know, as you can see, he’s back in the saddle,” Wicker said. “Most of us have a different view.”
Paul’s focus on sweeping national and international issues combined with his presidential run have created an opening to challenge Paul in his Senate reelection, Democrats say, and GOP officials needled him for months to drop out and focus at home.
In response, Paul spent months hustling through the Senate’s carriage entrance and then back out to protect his voting record nearly every time a roll call was requested. His lifetime voting score of 96 percent is significantly better than those of Cruz and Rubio. He’s held 55 town hall meetings this year and introduced dozens of bills during the heat of the presidential campaign, and people close to him are sensitive to the suggestion that he ever, even briefly, abandoned his day job.
He canceled a trip to the Virgin Islands intended to rustle up support, choosing instead to lead the Senate last spring into a two-day shutdown of key intelligence programs, and he and his aides labored to craft a campaign schedule that accommodated his Senate work.
“It wasn’t easy. It took a lot of work and a lot of weird scheduling,” Paul said.
But that’s not going to stop Gray from whacking him for being a successor to his father: a politician using a congressional seat to launch multiple presidential bids.
“In his imagination he’s still running for the president,” Gray said in an interview. “His family business is running for president.”
Paul barely acknowledges such lines of attack. If Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat who has won statewide office before, couldn’t get within 15 points of Mitch McConnell, Paul reasons that party affiliation alone will sink Gray’s bid.
“They’ll have a very difficult time. Alison Grimes tried to run in Kentucky and she wouldn’t even admit who she voted for,” Paul said, referring to her inability to say whether she voted for President Barack Obama.
Indeed, Paul cuts a major contrast to some of his colleagues similarly embroiled in reelection fights. While he doesn’t seek the media attention that he did as a presidential candidate — he hates playing pundit for a race he competed in — he has done little to step away from his libertarian persona that bashes both parties for growing government and shrinking privacy. He’s also still taking political risks, endorsing Rep. Marlin Stutzman in the race to replace Coats as allies of leadership try to keep the conservative candidate out of the Senate.
Still, he’ll need to pick up his fundraising at some point, after barely clearing $500,000 this quarter.
Paul’s preferred topics of focus include getting Congress to vote on the war with the Islamic State, fighting the surveillance apparatus and reassessing U.S. relationships with what he calls “frenemies” overseas. In particular the idea of providing arms sales to countries with mixed records on human rights and democratic government irks him as much now as it did on his first day in the Senate in 2011.
“We shouldn’t just give it to anybody,” Paul says of weapons technology. “It should be a privilege.”
That commitment to an issue few senators want to touch is what brought Murphy into the fold, a conservative-liberal alliance that party leaders are eyeing warily. While Obama was overseas trying to handle the frayed relationship with Saudi Arabia, Paul and Murphy were plotting to make it tougher for the U.S. ally to buy weapons with a resolution that would force a commitment from the Saudis to fight terrorism if they want to buy U.S. arms.
Murphy says he was “reticent” to support Paul’s March attempt to block F-16 sales to Pakistan but reasoned Paul’s gambit was worth supporting in order to compel the issue of oversight back into the congressional sphere. Plus, Paul has mastered the strategy of forcing the issue when colleagues are tired and want to move on to other matters, so Murphy certainly benefits from having an ally so skilled at securing votes that most senators simply don’t want to take.
“I’m glad that Rand’s back,” Murphy said. “I’d much rather have him as a partner here in the Senate than as an adversary in the White House.”
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