In view of where the next few hundred words lead, I should establish up front my broad admiration for Rand Paul. I have said for years that I want the Republican 2016 nominee to have his devotion to limited government, his clarity on the Constitution, his unvarnished opposition to Obamacare and his gift for expanding the GOP base.
So what’s the problem?
I find only two, a smaller tally than I could list for a number of other likely candidates. But they are important, and one may not be fixable.
First, the one that can be repaired by this weekend’s Sunday talk shows: he needs to stop being snippy in media interviews.
We want our standardbearers to be able to parry with skill when they are barraged with insolent, irrelevant or loaded questions. But they cannot under any circumstances grow as visibly annoyed as Senator Paul tends to get when presented with an impertinent overture.
He was completely entitled to his disapproval of Savannah Guthrie’s filibuster in the disguise of a question on NBC this week. But aggressive challenges are going to hit every conservative candidate every day, sometimes multiple times. Their best response is a there-you-go-again unflappability, coming off as unfazed by the insult of the moment.
This does not preclude a gentle rejection of a question’s flawed premise, or even an observation that media inquiries too often lurch into shaky accusations and topic-changing trickery. But they should always do it with a smile, and never, never lecture and scold questioners for not handling things as coherently as we might like.
This may seem small, but demeanor and personality are huge factors in a crowded primary likely to feature hopefuls with largely overlapping views. And here’s a largely undiscovered plus: Rand Paul, who can seem a little dry on national TV (at least until provoked), has an in-person natural charm and humor that work very well in retail settings like the venues he will walk into from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina in the long months to come.
I’ve seen it. He traveled to Dallas for a rally last year in support of our mutual friend, Texas State Senate candidate Don Huffines. I was pleased to MC that event and honored to introduce Senator Paul, who put a large crowd in the palm of his hand with wholly unscripted remarks filled with the passions and energy of a true lover of liberty.
It was a pleasant surprise, filed away as evidence against those who would underrate him on the presidential campaign trail.
But as Senator Paul hits that trail, he will carry one policy wrinkle which may be a deal-breaker for me, and more than a few other conservatives: his aversion to the surveillance methods that have protected us for a decade and a half.
Let us stipulate that when Senator Paul devoted a paragraph of his Louisville announcement to the evils of broad intelligence-gathering, cheers went up from college campuses and bohemian coffeehouses across the nation. These are voters Republicans need, and anything that spikes their approval is a possible plus.
But for every Ed Snowden fan who is also planting a Stand With Rand yard sign, there may be two other voters noticing that terrorism is on the march all over the world, and the main reason why is American failure to meet it head on.
Barack Obama has orchestrated our surrender and retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan, clearing the way for ISIS and al Qaeda and their jihadist brethren to march confidently across the moonscapes of the Middle East.
As we cut and run from the part of the world still filled with people who want to kill us, our nation can cling to at least one successful anti-terror legacy: we have done a remarkable job of preventing additional 9/11s, thwarting a large number of lesser attacks in the process.
We have done this with the heroic help of CIA and NSA specialists who are vigilant for the first peep of terrorist murmurs in our midst.
Every second of every day, computers are noticing locations, frequency and other metadata characteristics of countless phone calls and emails. If the algorithms alert to the slightest whiff of danger, the flow chart begins, from a closer examination of the nature of the communications to, if a basis presents itself, noticing certain keywords that might bolster an argument for focused scrutiny.
After 9/11, the wide (and accurate) verdict was that we had failed to “connect the dots.” Our false sense of security blinded us to dangers which were right before us. So if added vigilance prevents attacks, where precisely are all the dots we once failed to connect?
They are tiny needles in the haystacks of conversations and emails constantly swirling around and among every American. If we have technology that can do what no human could ever hope to do, noticing evidence of possible terrorism before it actually occurs, I am thankful to God, and to Fort Meade and Langley.
Senator Paul is not so grateful. He paints a very different portrait of the effort I credit for keeping us safe: “Warrantless searches of Americans’ phones and computer records are un-American and a threat to our civil liberties,” he proclaimed Tuesday. “I say that your phone records are yours. I say the phone records of law-abiding citizens are none of their damn business.”
This connects with our proper concern against government poking into our lives where it does not belong. And such suspicions are understandably cultivated under an Obama administration that routinely victimizes enemies and conceals its misdeeds.
But surveillance-phobes have failed to craft the slightest argument that such abuses have in fact taken place. I always ask, “Where is the Rosa Parks of improper surveillance?” Where are the citizens whose lives have been ruined because some NSA analyst is reading family e-mails or taping holiday phone calls?
The actual detailed content of our communications is indeed private, not to be eyeballed or eavesdropped without cause. But the mere event of a call’s placement, or a touch of the “send” button, are events immediately splayed across the ether, if only to allow our service providers to know what to bill us for. They are simply not the stuff of privacy expectations.
The notion that the broadest end of the intel funnel must somehow be blocked by a warrant requirement is an assault on logic. How does one know a warrant is appropriate if not one molecule of information is known about the suspicious communication?
Rand Paul’s March 2013 drone filibuster was grand political theater, as well as a valid chapter in a debate over who should and should not be mowed down by remote control. But two years later, America in general and Republicans in particular are setting aside their hazardous war-weariness, embracing in some cases the four words that once meant political suicide: “boots on the ground.”
While it is profoundly unfair to caricature the Paul national security stance as “to the left of Obama,” it will surely be the most reticent view on the debate stages of the fall.
The Senator sought to comfort skeptics in his announcement speech with well-crafted paragraphs that identify the enemy as radical Islam, and muscular pledges to “do whatever it takes to defend America from these haters of mankind.”
No one should presume that Rand Paul carries his father’s identical worldview, containing the grossly offensive notion that America pretty well brought on 9/11 by daring to have a Mideast presence, or the grotesque moral equivalencies that ask how we would feel if Iraq invaded us.
But a voiced determination to protect America rings hollow if accompanied by a holstering of the most effective daily weapon we have employed to remain safe. “The president created this vast dragnet by executive order,” Paul proclaimed in his remarks. “And as president on day one, I will immediately end this unconstitutional surveillance.”
This will be an obstacle for most voters Paul will seek in the primaries. The fourth amendment protects us from “unreasonable” searches and seizures, and it is hard to imagine that conservative majorities in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina— or anywhere else— are as chafed by intelligence efforts as he is.
But there is a counterweight of ample size. Rand Paul is as energizing as Ted Cruz, Scott Walker and other conservative stars on various other issues that connect strongly— spending, tax reform, and fidelity to the Constitution to name a few. If those pluses outweigh the challenges of a problematic national security stance, he can navigate those tricky waters to substantial success.