Editor's note: In the January issue of Townhall Magazine, where this article originally appeared, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) talks to RedState’s Erick Erickson about foreign policy, criminal justice, and his vision for the future of the United States.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is one of the few Republicans to have so openly embraced the new populist energy of the Republican Party. After defeating an establishment candidate in his 2010 primary, Paul intoned, “I have a message from the tea party, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words. We've come to take our government back.”
Over the next four years, Paul not only ably represented Kentucky, he also built a national following around his more libertarian brand of conservatism. This December, I sat down with Paul in his Senate office to talk about current events and a possible presidential run.
Erickson: Sen. Paul, The Wall Street Journal the other day ran an article suggesting you were in line with John Kerry and Barack Obama on the Iranian sanctions and we need to let them play out over time. And there were even critics of yours who were saying you didn’t have a problem if Iran got a nuclear weapon. I wanted to let you clarify because it has been reported in about five different ways from about five different places.
Paul: It would be news to me if I were agreeing with President Obama on much of anything and/or John Kerry. I’ve been at war with John Kerry over the declaration of war, or whether or not we need it, for our war against ISIS. I’ve been a big proponent that we should declare war.
With regard to Iran, I voted for all of the sanctions against Iran. I think we should use every possible weapon that we have to try to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons. That includes the threat of military force.
I do think that our sanctions have worked and have brought them to the table because they have been international sanctions. We have six major countries, but really a host of dozens of countries, that have participated in the sanctions.
Right now we have an interim agreement and I asked a question yesterday in the Foreign Relations Committee, I asked, “Do you believe that Iran is in compliance with the agreement?” Not do we think Iran is doing everything we want them to do, but with the interim agreement we have, which says they should take all of their 20 percent Uranium, and take it down to 5 percent. And their opinion is that they actually are.
Now he did say they can reverse some of that, and that still is a concern. There are two ways you can hold your Uranium as you un-enrich it. You can put it into an oxide form, which is reversible, or you can put it into a fuel rod, which is more permanent. You can’t quite reverse it. And so I think it would be a step forward from what we have if we were to actually try to get more of that Uranium into a fuel rod to get it more permanently at a lower level.
I have also said that if I had been in charge of the negotiations with Iran, I would have delayed turning the spigot on the release of sanctions money until I saw six months of compliance. So instead of doing them simultaneously I would have made an agreement that says no more enrichment, gone six months and get compliance, then begun the money and have a lag time between the money.
Currently I think there is too much pessimism over this. I think there are some advantages to where we are versus no agreement. When we had no agreement they were basically still enriching. Twenty percent is a problem and much closer to having a bomb than 5 percent. So I am one that does see optimism in going to 5 percent.
The new bill that people are promoting I haven’t supported. The main reason is that it starts out and says the precondition for negotiations is no enrichment. I don’t think that they will negotiate at all. They would not come to the table for no enrichment.
I don’t want them to have a nuclear weapon. I want to be able to negotiate with them. The thing is, the way negotiations work, unless you have unconditional surrender, after Japan was defeated in World War II, that’s about as close as you’ll ever get to unconditional surrender where you can demand absolute terms, short of that most of the time countries will want to save face. And for Iran, whether they get a bomb or not, which we definitely do not want them to do, they are saving face by saying, “We are a proud country and we will still enrich some.”
And so if the end point were some enrichment but continuing to reduce centrifuges and no nuclear weaponry or triggers for nuclear bombs, that would be a huge advantage. I think it is over simplifying my position to say, “Oh well you’re just right out there with John Kerry.” Really I agree with President Obama and John Kerry on very, very little of this.
Erickson: Do you really think we can trust the Iranians? We went through all the negotiations with North Korea and now most everyone thinks that they used that time to build their bomb.
Erickson: Can we trust the Iranians?
Paul: No. I mean I think there are very few of our adversaries that we can trust. But some people use that as an argument for having no negotiations. We had years of negotiations with the Russians and no one would have argued that Reagan believed we should trust them. “Trust but verify” was his mantra. But Reagan, because he had such a position of strength and because he had made our country such a strongly defended country, he was the one who then actually had the ability to negotiate with the Russians. But he did negotiate.
And so I think that just by saying they’re clever, devious, and probably dishonest, which they’ve proven to be time over time, isn’t still an argument against no negotiations. If you have no negotiations your only other option is military. Once the military option begins there will be no inspections and no monitoring of them, and really you have to at least acknowledge the possibility that a certain portion of their population that is inclined to be pro-Western shifts the opposite way once there is bombing happening from us or Israel.
So I do want a negotiated settlement. I’ve also said that if they are not in compliance, if they begin enriching again above 5 percent, and actually I think they are limited to keeping it at 5 percent, if they are found to be not in compliance with that agreement I would be for more sanctions.
And so I don’t think that is as simple as saying, “You are for President Obama’s position.”
Erickson: Let’s shift gears to domestic stuff. You have been one of the real vocal leaders talking about all the police problems, particularly in the black community, of late from a federal perspective and from a state perspective. You have the situation with Eric Garner in New York, the Ferguson situation, and so many of these others. It seems like, Russell Moore, for example, of the Southern Baptist Commission, released a statement that said Christians need to recognize that when so many black Americans are saying we have a problem, I have seen as a local city councilman, there clearly is a problem. What can be done? What should be done at a federal level as opposed to a state level to deal with this?
Paul: I think the first thing is the specifics of the case, which I am trying to stay away from the specifics. I am trying to sort of analyze the anger of so many people. And there is no justification for violence. There is no justification for the rioting and the burning of stores. In fact, many of the victims of this have been minority-owned businesses.
However, I think we should try to explain it and the way I’ve described it is I think there is an undercurrent of unease in our country. In many of our cities, in many of our urban black populations, there is high unemployment, there is poverty, but there is also the sense, some of it justified maybe some of it not, but the sense that they are not being treated the same as white individuals.
ProPublica did a study of like 20 or 30 years of people being killed by the police, and a black individual is 29 times more likely than a white individual to be killed by law enforcement. So I think what happens in our communities is there may be more crime in some of the African-American areas of cities, but then the police tend to be there more often, and then it multiplies and so if you look at statistics and you say, “Do white kids smoke marijuana as much as black kids?” It is about the same percentage. But while black kids are about 12 percent of the population and white kids are 70 percent of the population, the arrests are four times greater in the black community. Something is not quite right with that.
There is also some injustice going on out there and this was actually a white family, but there was a white family in Philadelphia, teenage kid was selling $40 worth of illegal drugs, the police took the house. They evicted the family from the house and boarded it up and prevented the family from living in their house. They kicked the family out of their house for $40 worth of illegal drugs. We’ve gone too far in the War on Drugs.
Also in Ferguson in the last year there were $2 million worth of petty fines. And you or I might say “Oh, $100 we’re mad about, but we’ll pay it," but if you are living on the edge, from paycheck to paycheck, or if you are on welfare and you’re barely scraping by, and the police come and take $100 because you jaywalked or parked in the wrong place, these petty fines can be devastating for poor people and they add up. And then they see it as unfair.
And I’ll give you just one more example. I was with a wealthy African-American who is a friend of mine yesterday and he was telling me about his dad who is a policeman. And he said, “I understand how they have a tough situation. It’s hard for police," he said, “but I also understand as a professional black man, people still look at me different.” He said, “I was in a department store the other day and I am being followed by a security guard. I am just shopping. I am not a paranoid person but I am being followed because I am black.”
Paul: And so, for us that are not black to say that we understand how it is to walk in a person’s shoes, I don’t think we truly do unless we go and see what kind of circumstances people have to endure.
Erickson: My friend Roland Martin from CNN, he and I were in South Carolina for the primary in 2012. We were standing out in front of the Marriott, both in suits waiting to go, and people started dropping their luggage and keys off with Roland. It was an eye opening experience. I completely agree with you. I think when we hear these stories we really can’t relate until we’ve seen firsthand what that is.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about 2016. I know you have declared you are running for office for 2016 for the U.S. Senate. But there is the speculation about the presidency as well. Where are you with that?
Erickson: (laughs) Everyone says maybe.
Paul: We have been thinking seriously about it. I’ve travelled the country extensively in the last year. We’ve met with a lot of Republicans. I’ve spoken to a lot of state conventions and Lincoln Day dinners. And we will make our decision in the spring. It will be based on family considerations. It is a huge ordeal. Fairly or unfairly your family goes under the microscope too.
And the other consideration for us is, is the message resonating that we think we can actually win an election on it? That decision is one we will make as we get a little bit closer.
Erickson: Were you to run and win in 2016, you would be running for reelection in 2020, the start of the third decade of the 21st century. Whether you run or not, where do you think the country needs to go as it heads to that milestone? What should the country look like? Forget the brass knuckles politics and the point for point policy positions, what does America look like in 2020?
Paul: You know, I think this may sound a little jingoistic or nationalistic, but I think we are the greatest country really in the time of history. The freest, but also the richest, and also the most humanitarian of any civilization over recorded time.
But I think we are slipping. Slipping in as far as losing some of our freedom. But I think we are also slipping in the sense that just the practicalities of where people want to locate their business. It’s become much easier, once upon a time oceans stopped people and travel stopped people and you just had your business where you were located.
Now businesses go to where governments make them welcome. And we’ve shown that with the highest corporate tax in the world, as well as probably the highest regulatory burden in the world, that we’re discouraging businesses. And businesses are fleeing our borders.
What I would like to see in the next decade is that we reverse that and say, “America is a great place to do business. Come to our country.”
Erick Erickson is editor-in-chief of RedState.com.