When America’s National Institutes of Heath said that it hadn’t cured Ebola yet because of budget cuts, Senator Rand Paul had an acidic answer. No, he told an audience of Republicans, the problem was not underfunding. It was bad priorities. ‘Have you seen what the NIH spends money on?’ he asked. ‘$939,000 spent to discover whether or not male fruit flies would like to consort with younger female fruit flies. $117,000 spent to determine if most monkeys are right-handed and like to throw poop with their right hands.’ And best of all, $2.4 million for an ‘origami condom’, which suggests something shaped like a swan. In fact, it’s modelled on the accordion.
This anecdote is a great introduction to Rand Paul — a libertarian with a sense of humour and a range of views that you’d imagine make him a pariah in the conservative movement. He is antiwar, wants a softer approach to tackling narcotics and has been a vocal critic of the national security establishment. Yet polling shows that he could be the Republican presidential nominee in 2016 because, like him, a lot of Americans are furious at the tragic farce that is their government. To understand the rise of libertarianism, you have to understand where Paul came from and where America is headed.
Key to Rand Paul’s success is that he looks normal. Say ‘libertarian Republican’ to many people and they picture a guy in a tinfoil hat who keeps one too many guns in his Wyoming tree house. Such a constituency indeed exists, and it worked hard for Rand’s father, Ron, when he ran for the Republican nomination in 2008 and 2012. Ron Paul wanted to end the War on Terror completely and reduce government to a size that could be safely drowned in a bathtub. He blamed 9/11 on the government’s nannyish refusal to allow guns on aeroplanes. Rand inherited his father’s ideology and interest in medicine (Ron’s an obstetrician-gynaecologist, Rand an ophthalmologist). But where Ron’s crowd was loud and abrasive, Rand has done his best to cultivate a far more mainstream image.
At a glance, Rand could easily be the manager of a regional bank. When he ran for the Senate in Kentucky in 2010, he was opposed by a Democrat who, in the personality department, should have won: Jack Conway was a charismatic stud who could’ve turned John Wayne gay. But aside from being a Republican running in a Republican state in a year favourable to Republicans, Rand also benefited from a unique political chemistry. His ideas were innovative enough to cast him as anti-Washington and independent-minded, but his look was dull enough to reassure voters that they weren’t backing a crazy. Do a Google Images search ‘Rand Paul’ and you’ll notice that he appears only to own one black suit and a red tie.
Since entering the Senate, Rand has played a very clever game. He staged a brave filibuster against drone strikes that lasted nearly 13 hours and solidified the old Ron Paul constituency of anti-government diehards. But he has shaved the sharper edges off his father’s antiwar philosophy — making the ubiquitous pilgrimage to Israel and backing airstrikes against the Islamic State. Civil rights legislation, a bête noir among right-wing libertarians, has become something that he is intensely relaxed about. Unlike his father, Rand Paul would not entirely eliminate the income tax or legalise marijuana (although he would dismantle the apparatus of the authoritarian war against it). And the net result is that America’s most radical national politician has started to look like its most moderate. Not moderate in the sense of being cynically vanilla, but in the sense of having a non-partisan philosophy that allows him to take the best policies from either side of the political spectrum. Fiscally more right-wing, socially more left-wing.
Of course, Rand’s unusual message would not appeal if America was perfectly happy with politics as usual. But it is not. A recent poll found that 74 per cent of Americans are either angry or dissatisfied with the way that the US government works. Partisanship has created gridlock as Congress fails to tackle stagnant incomes and historic levels of poverty. Massive spending has increased debt but not labour-market participation, while Obama’s signature medical reform has helped the poorest but probably increased costs for the squeezed middle. The US government’s vacillating handling of Ebola — as that Rand Paul gag about condoms implies — has seen it outperformed by disease-free Nigeria. And yet the incompetent American bureaucracy continues to expand. At home, the security state gathers citizens’ data. Overseas, the war against Islamism continues in pointless perpetuity.
Turning these complaints into a coherent platform involves piecing together an apparently disparate constituency of the disgruntled — a little like Ukip has tried in Britain. Paul’s backers include standard Republican groups such as Christian reactionaries and fiscal conservatives. But he also reaches out to the very people that the GOP needs to start reaching out to: the young, ethnic minorities and wealthy liberals worried about the over-mighty security apparatus. In other words, Rand Paul is successfully matching the ideals of libertarians to the practical concerns of ordinary Americans, building a viable, long-term political mission. And frankly, it’s the only one of any intellectual interest right now. With the media talking up a 2016 race between another Clinton (Hillary) and another Bush (Jeb), Rand Paul stands out for having both fresh ideas and a fresh name. Novelty alone will see him dominate headlines in the Republican primaries.
For the moment, Rand is the man who many Republicans running for Congress want to be seen standing next to. That shows how the American Right is evolving away from neoconservatism and towards something more strictly constitutionalist. And the fact that libertarianism could be winning votes also shows just how anti-state many Americans have become after six years of Obamanomics. Across left and right, there is a growing consensus that if government cannot help, then it can at least get out of the way.