Following the 2012 presidential election, many Republicans found themselves in a state of shock. To lose to a president whose policies had not only been controversial but had failed to stifle an enduring economic downturn seemed implausible. There were no doubt countless conservative voters who joined an incredulous Bill O’Reilly the next day asking, “What the heck happened last night?” In recent weeks, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has provided an answer.
In the wake of his 13-hour filibuster and narrow victory in CPAC’s presidential straw poll last weekend, the freshmen senator has become an overnight sensation in American politics. Though much of the support for his dramatic defense of due process may have been partisan at first, it has generated a groundswell of soul-searching within the Republican Party.Conservatives have failed to provide a message that resonated with voters since the Bush administration and they have two failed presidential campaigns to show for it.
When The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta asked attendees of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference why Romney lost, many felt he simply wasn’t the man for the job. One man opined, “He wasn’t a conservative, so conservative’s stayed home.” Another echoed this sentiment saying, “Right now…people wanted a real solid conservative Republican.They see too much similarity between the socialist policies of Barack Obama and the choice that they had.”
Similarity indeed. If there is one thing Rand Paul represents it is a stark contrast to the “stale and moss covered” GOP of the Old Guard that may rhetorically condemn government growth but offers little substantive difference from their Democratic opponents. Channeling his father’s civil libertarianism during his speech at CPAC Paul stated,
“You can’t protect the Second Amendment though if you don’t have the Fourth Amendment.If we are not secure in our homes, if we are not secure in our persons and our papers, can we really believe that our right to bear arms will be secure? We need to jealously guard all of our liberties.”
Paul continued in that vein saying:
“The Facebook generation can detect falseness and hypocrisy a mile away. They are the core of the ‘leave me alone’ coalition…Ask them whether we should put a kid in jail for the non-violent crime of drug use and you’ll hear a resounding ‘no.’ Ask them if they want to bail out Too-Big-To-Fail banks with their tax dollars and you’ll hear a ‘hell no.’”
The constitutional conservatism Paul represents provides answers to key questions the GOP’s been asking since November: First how do we appeal to more voters without sacrificing our values? And more importantly, what are those values?
Paul’s solution to these questions is simple: follow the Constitution. Said Paul,
“The Constitution must be our guide. For Republicans to win nationally, we must stand for something. We must stand on principle. We must stand for something so powerful and so popular that it brings together people from the left and the right and the middle.”
By urging a return to constitutional principles Paul has not only created a chance for Republicans to garner votes from across the politcal spectrum, but has charted a course for the party to actually be conservative once again.
His chief critics such as The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol chided Paul for representing the “Code Pink faction of the Republican Party” and remarked that Paul’s concerns over drone strikes being used on American citizens was “kookiness.” Initially, Paul’s colleague, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) would parrot these statements referring to Paul and his allies as “wacko birds,” but would quickly apologize in response to fierce criticism for his attack on Senators Paul and Cruz (R-TX) and Represenative Justin Amash (R-MI).
The overwhelming support for Paul in light of these attacks demonstrates his greatest potential: To unite a broad coalition of voters while maintaining conservative principles. While detractors such as Kristol and McCain would have you believe that Paul’s defense of civil liberties isn’t conservative, if Barry Goldwater still holds any claim on that term, then McCain and Kristol never have.
Perhaps Goldwater’s most famous statement, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” illustrates that Paul’s constitutionalism is not a departure from conservatism but a restoration of its core tenets. The big government philosophy encouraged by Kristol and others perpetuates both a “conservatism” without substance and a party without victories.
Calling for a return to the fusionism of the Reagan era, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg writes:
“What often gets left out in discussions of the American Right is that fusionism isn’t merely an alliance, it is an alloy. Fusionism runs through the conservative heart. William F. Buckley, the founder of the conservative movement, often called himself a ‘libertarian journalist.’ Asked about that in a 1993 interview, he told C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb that the question ‘Does this augment or diminish human liberty?’ informed most of what he wrote.”
It is this liberty-minded conservatism that makes the son of former congressman Ron Paul such an asset to the GOP and the future of the conservative movement; not only due to his ability to wed the various factions of the Right but because his constitutional approach makes him more of a maverick than John McCain ever dreamed of being and presents an appealing option for an electorate longing to buck the system.
The prospect of a pro-life Christian conservative who believes in traditional marriage, though wants government out of the marriage business, and wants to balance the budget in five years is more than enough to warrant the backing of mainstream Republicans. It is his support for civil liberties and a more prudent foreign policy however, that poses a new Republican alternative to the Democrats that is very attractive to American youth, independents and even disheartened liberals who are less than satisfied with the current administration.
Paul touched on this at CPAC declaring,
“We need a Republican Party that shows up on the Southside of Chicago and shouts at the top of our lungs, ‘We are the party of jobs and opportunity. The GOP is the ticket to the middle class…
…Our party is encumbered by an inconsistent approach to freedom. The new GOP, the GOP that will win again, will need to embrace liberty in both the economic and personal sphere. If we are going to have a Republican Party that can win, liberty needs to be the backbone of the GOP.”
The greatest tool for victory in politics is not to merely tell voters why they shouldn’t be voting for the other guy, but why they should be voting for you. By following the lead of Senator Paul and others like him, the GOP puts itself in the position to do just that for the first time in years. In doing so, they will not only restore their party’s prominence but more importantly its purpose.