Finally, the presidential race got interesting. The thought of Hillary Clinton vs Jeb Bush was too much of a rerun of the same old thing: big government liberal vs big government conservative arguing about how best to spend Americans’ money. And they both share a taste for military excursions – white boots marching in foreign lands. Well, now there’s a candidate officially in the race who stands for something completely different. Rand Paul’s libertarian crusade could be about the most exciting candidacy in my political lifetime.
It won’t star the most exciting candidate. Senator Paul (Kentucky) wears the standard uniform of the college Republican: blue blazer, red tie, grey slacks. The voice could send you to sleep; the face is forgettable. But he does stand for a philosophical break from the post-Nineties American political order which has seen both parties competing in various shades of the status quo. The Democrats have put their emphasis upon expanding welfare, while curtailing civil liberties and engaging in infrequent wars. The Republicans would like to bomb more people more often, and would reform welfare while retaining the basic principle that government is there to help at home and abroad.
Paul, by contrast, starts from the principle that government mostly does bad – including (maybe especially) when it tries to do good. Hence he is against both the welfare state and the warfare state, preferring instead a small state that is limited in what it can do by the Constitution. He is not an ideologue. On the contrary, we’ve seen his rapid evolution since entering the Senate from the child of his maverick (occasionally bizarre) father, Ron, into a more regular Republican who the party bosses can deal with. There’s been the obligatory visit to Israel; some softening of his position on fighting Isis; a necessary assertion of gay marriage as a 'moral crisis'; and a firm commitment to opposing abortion. All of this might, to English ears, make him sound like just another authoritarian right-winger. But Rand applies tests to his conservatism that many conservatives do not. Should his religious views trump the rights of the individual? Could local government be doing something better than central government? And, most importantly of all, are the letter and spirit of the Constitution being obeyed?
It’s symbolic that on the day that Paul threw his hat into the ring of the US election, Tony Blair materialised from the afterlife to pass judgement on the British one. Blair represents the spirit of the Bush years: that boundless, self-confident willingness to remake the world anew. Paul represents a new generation of political activists who are scarred by the ambitiousness of government and simply want to be left alone. That generation might not be large enough yet to help Paul win the nomination, but I expect to see him take a few primaries and shift his party in a different direction. While the Democrats, under the Clinton thumb, remain as morbidly Blairite as ever.