At a time when the Republican Party has developed a reputation for voting and thinking in lockstep, it is worth noting that Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul has a surprisingly bipartisan appeal, which is becoming an important part of his growing presidential campaign. In the wake of an Internet-breaking filibuster on the Patriot Act, the outspoken National Security Agency critic has “reached out to African-American Republicans, spoke to a group of moderate Republicans, and held a news conference with House Democrats,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
But targeting liberals will be an important part of the Web-friendly candidate’s campaign (who even has his own subreddit), and indeed, Paul’s libertarian platform shows a great of overlap with the left, with a number of stances that could appeal to Democrats. Of course, it remains to be seen whether this constitutes genuine conviction or political pandering on his part—after all, Paul would hardly be the first president to get elected on promises he doesn’t intend to keep.
Rand Paul might not win, but as these four policies show, he’ll certainly shake things up.
1) The Patriot Act
Perhaps Paul’s most conspicuous break from GOP tradition occurred last week, when he filibustered the extension of the Patriot Act, a piece of legislation passed during George W. Bush’s presidency that significantly expanded America’s security state in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks. As Paul tweeted at the time:
I've just taken the senate floor to begin a filibuster of the Patriot Act renewal. It's time to end the NSA spying!— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) May 20, 2015
Thanks to the 11-hour filibuster, Paul has earned the scorn of Republicans like pundit Bill Kristol, who derisively referred to the Kentucky Senator as a “liberal Democrat” for agreeing with progressive House members Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) on that and a number of other issues. The fact that Paul’s filibuster had bipartisan support almost certainly didn’t help his cause among GOP stalwarts, although they tended to depict his maneuver as either grandstanding or paranoid.
Of course, the Senate was forced to adjourn without extending the bill, so Paul’s filibuster has been at least a temporary success.
2) The prison-industrial complex
Paul has also emerged as the Republican Party’s chief (and arguably only) prominent critic of the growth of America’s prison-industrial complex. During the Ferguson, Mo., riots last year, Paul not only condemned the violence of the police officers, but managed to frame what he called “the militarization of local police precincts” as an issue of big government run amok—deftly blending a liberal stance with conservative reasoning.
“The outrage in Ferguson is understandable—though there is never an excuse for rioting or looting,” he wrote in an editorial for Time. “There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace, but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response. The images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action.”
More recently, Paul extended this condemnation to include the likely Democratic presidential nominee next year, Hillary Clinton. “Your husband passed all the laws that put a generation of black men in prison,” he said on a CBS radio talk show last week, referring to measures that nationalized a “three strikes” policy and toughened crime laws that disproportionately target racial minorities. “She’s changing her tune now. She’s changing her tune because people like me have been speaking out against these injustices.”
3) He wants to end the War on Drugs
It’s important to recognize that, unlike strict libertarians, Paul refuses to take a stand on whether marijuana and other narcotics should be legalized. At the same time, he is a leading sponsor of the CARERS Act, which would amend the Controlled Substances Act so that the federal prohibition on marijuana would not apply to those who grow, sell, and/or use it for medical purposes.
More importantly, he has argued that the federal government shouldn’t be getting involved in enforcing drug policy at all, instead leaving that matter to the individual states. “Just end that war on drugs and make it a much more local situation, more community oriented,” he explained in a 2000 appearance on the show Kentucky Tonight. “There’s probably a lot of savings in that.”
He elaborated on this in 2014 during an interview with Bill Maher, promising to do “everything to end the war on drugs” in large part because it disproportionately targets racial minorities and the poor:
Our prisons are full of black and brown kids. Three-fourths of the people in prison are black or brown, and white kids are using drugs, Bill, as you know… at the same rate as these other kids. But kids who have less means, less money, kids who are in areas where police are patrolling. … Police are given monetary incentives to make arrests, monetary incentives for their own departments. So I want to end the war on drugs because it’s wrong for everybody, but particularly because poor people are caught up in this, and their lives are ruined by it.
4) He opposes mandatory minimum sentencing
In a stance that he shares with a growing number of conservative activists, Paul has spoken out against mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which require judges to impose harsh penalties on low-level drug offenders. Once again, he frames this position in the rhetoric of racial oppression. “If I told you that one out of three African-American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago,” Paul pointed out. “Yet today, a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the war on drugs.”
Last February, Paul reached across the aisle to achieve meaningful reform on this issue, working with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to promote the Justice Safety Valve Act, which allows federal judges to give sentences lower than the mandatory punishment when they feel that the required minimum violates standards for fair punishment laid out elsewhere. In a statement issued for the press, Paul contextualized his argument through the lens of federalism, declaring that “the federal government should get out of the way, and allow local and state judges to do their jobs.”
Despite Bill Kristol’s characterization of Paul as a secret liberal, the truth is that his seemingly left-wing positions have more to do with a relatively consistent application of his anti-government ideology than they do with any covert progressivism. Not only does Paul rationalize his opposition to the security state or prison-industrial complex by using the rhetoric of small government, but whenever liberal ideals require an interventionist state—such as with health care reform or social welfare programse—he has reliably come down against the leftist position.
Indeed, Paul isn’t even absolute in his ostensible libertarianism, as he still opposes same-sex marriage and has yet to speak out against the voter suppression laws being passed by Republicans throughout the various states.
Nevertheless, it is both notable and admirable that a Republican presidential candidate with Paul’s high profile has been willing to go against the grain of his own party’s ideals on so many important issues. It may seem like a betrayal for liberals to give him credit where it is due here… but it would be a far greater betrayal for us to not do so.
Matt Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University, as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, MSNBC, and various college newspapers and blogs. Matt actively encourages people to reach out to him at [email protected].
Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)