Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) has been ruffling feathers within his own party by taking a stand against the reauthorization of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program, based on what he perceives to be a violation of civil liberties.
Paul objects to the NSA program’s allowing for the dragnet bulk collection of telephone metadata, which he argued violates Fourth Amendment protections of the Constitution guarding against warrantless searches.
Paul’s Republican colleagues view his objection as misguided and a threat to national security.
In addition to those criticisms, the junior Republican senator from Kentucky may have political motivations. Paul is among a crowded field of a dozen or so hopefuls vying for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
With so many running, there is a desire by some candidates to distinguish themselves from one another. Much as his father, Ron Paul, did in the prior two presidential election cycles, Rand Paul has chosen to sell the libertarian approach as a way to promote his candidacy.
This could be a risky proposition, something Paul seemed to acknowledge in a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate over the weekend.
“People here in town think I’m making a huge mistake,” he said. “Some of them, I think, secretly want there to be an attack on the United States so they can blame it on me. One of the people in the media the other day came up to me and said, ‘Oh, when there’s a great attack aren’t you going to feel guilty that you caused this great attack?’ It’s like the people who attack us aren’t responsible for attacks on us.”
He has since walked back those remarks, but should there be a major terrorist attack between now and when the GOP nomination is decided, Paul’s presidential aspirations will be stopped dead in their tracks. But that’s a risk he’s apparently willing to take.
Paul has some work to do. According to the Real Clear Politics average of polls conducted over the past month and a half, Paul is mired in the middle of the pack of GOP hopefuls at 9 percent. This far out, it’s meaningless except that if his candidacy isn’t taken seriously in the early going, fundraising will be difficult.
Paul has also been aggressive in his attacks on former President Bill Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, herself a 2016 presidential hopeful.
The Clinton name has been sullied in recent weeks over their financial dealings involving the family’s charitable foundation and whether or not Hillary Clinton used her office as the nation’s top diplomat to secure contributions and perhaps financially benefit personally.
Paul has used that and the past sexual indiscretions of Bill Clinton to attack the Democratic candidate on numerous occasions, which may explain why, in a hypothetical match-up with Hillary Clinton, Paul does much better than his Republican competitors.
In a number of hypothetical general election polls featuring Clinton against each of the perceived frontrunners for the GOP nomination, Paul only trails by seven points on average — whereas with the exception of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), who also trails Clinton by seven points — Clinton leads Paul’s competitors by anywhere from eight to 12 points.
To his credit, this Paul presidential bid is so far being taken more seriously than any of his father’s runs for president. The elder Paul mounted three unsuccessful bids for the White House, first in 1988 as the Libertarian Party nominee and then twice contended for the Republican nomination, first in 2008 and then in 2012.
The key for Rand Paul will be maintaining the energy of his father’s bids, which had something of a loyal cult following willing to devote itself to helping further Ron Paul’s candidacy. There is a fine line, however, between mustering energy via staking out alternative positions and marginalizing oneself.
That probably will mean avoiding a push for the gold standard, reducing U.S. power abroad and any talk of secession, which were some of the things his father promoted in the past.
Rand Paul’s positions on the NSA come very close to that. He’s catering to the crowd that invigorated his father’s campaign. But a key difference is that as a U.S. senator he has more of an ability to act on his beliefs than his father did as a member of the House of Representatives.
Rand’s opponents are already publicly criticizing him for being out of the mainstream and making the country more vulnerable. “There’s not evidence, not a shred of evidence, that the metadata program has violated anybody’s civil liberties,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, himself a potential 2016 candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, said regarding Paul’s efforts to delay reauthorization of the Patriot Act last weekend. Others in the field have echoed Bush’s sentiments, which may be to Paul’s advantage.
If the United States avoids any major terrorist attack over the next year and a half, Paul’s naysayers in the GOP field may cancel one another out and, in the end, the libertarian wing could prevail. That “if,” however, is a huge gamble.