With half of the Republican presidential field trying to avoid jail time, Rand Paul is starting to look like a viable option for 2016. His response to the racism and police aggression in #Ferguson is the first sign that he might actually be able to win.
For the past two years, from the moment Ron Paul called off the Revolution and headed back to Texas, the political establishment has been eagerly waiting for his son, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, to run for president. They've watched with amusement as Paul popped up around the country—in Iowa and New Hampshire, at Evangelical powwows, Howard University, the ACLU—and at the top of early 2016 polls. Unlike his father, it's hard to deny that he Paul is a "serious" candidate. But the idea that he could actually be elected President of the United States? That's never been taken very seriously.
But with half of the GOP's 2016 bench trying to avoid prison time and Democrats spinning their wheels in Obama's second-term rut, the idea of a President Rand Paul is starting to sound less and less crazy. On issues like criminal justice reform, mass surveillance, and drug policy, Paul is casting himself as Another Option, carving out new space as the candidate who can make room for both small-government libertarians and other voters—young people and minorities, mostly—who don't see either party as particularly effective or relevant. And some of what he's saying makes a lot of sense.
Take Paul's comments about the events in Ferguson, Missouri. In an op-ed published by Time on Thursday, the Kentucky Senator laid out a remarkably blunt, even angry, assessment of the racial tensions at the center of this week's riots, linking policing issues to his broader critique of the federal government.
"If I had been told to get out of the street as a teenager, there would have been a distinct possibility that I might have smarted off. But, I wouldn't have expected to be shot," Paul wrote. Going on to condemn the aggressive police response to protesters, he then focuses his criticism on the militarization of the police forces in Ferguson, a problem he, perhaps predictably, blames on "big government."
"Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies—where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement," Paul wrote. The result, he argues, is an erosion of civil liberties that is disproportionately felt by minorities.
"Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them," he states, adding later: "Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention."
The argument here isn't shocking; in fact, lots of people who aren't politicians have argued that giving cops billions of dollars in military hardware is scary and exacerbates racial tensions. (Washington Post blogger Radley Balko, for one, has been sounding the alarm for years.) A recent ACLU report on the militarization of America's police forces points out that federal grant programs provide incentives for local police departments to acquire and use billions of dollars in military-grade hardware, and found that the "use of paramilitary weapons and tactics primarily impacted people of color." According to a December poll conducted for Reason, most Americans—57 percent, as well as 53 percent of Republicans—are concerned by these trends, and think that police use of military weapons and vehicles is "going too far."
But while other politicians, including Obama, have tried to avoid the politics of #Ferguson, Paul forcefully articulated, and shared, the public's outrage over #Ferguson—including the racial issues in play—and offered a policy solution in line with his ideas about small government. In short, he hit the elusive sweet spot between the libertarianism and civil rights—because you don't have to have read Ludwig von Misesto know it's a fucking problem that images of suburban St. Louis are virtually indistinguishable from the Battle of Mosul. By contrast, most politicians, including Obama, have avoided the politics and racial issues surrounding #Ferguson.
On other issues, too, Paul has been able to find unexpected common ground with voters outside of the aging, white GOP base. His views on issues like medical marijuana, federal sentencing laws, government spying, drones, and military intervention are much more closely aligned with public opinion—particularly among young voters—than those of any of his potential 2016 Republican rivals, and also of Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. This is probably not, as last week's New York Times Magazine suggested, the harbinger of some national libertarian moment. But it does give Paul the space to expand his appeal with the younger generation of voters—something the Republican Party admits it needs to do if it ever wants to win another presidential election.
Paul seems to be seizing the opportunity. His 13-hour filibuster protesting Obama's drone policy made him a national figure last year, and since then, he's become a leading voice against the NSA's sweeping domestic surveillance programs, earning a standing ovation from a roomful of college students at UC Berkeley this spring. When his neocon colleagues (and Obama) wanted the military to intervene in Syria last year, Paul joined forces with Democrats to oppose the effort. Recently, he introduced two bills with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, one that would advance criminal justice reforms for juveniles and non-violent drug offenders, and another that would bar the Drug Enforcement Agency from using its funds to crackdown on legal medical marijuana providers and their patients. Of course, some of Paul's voter outreach efforts, like his speech at Howard University last year, have fallen flat. But he's gotten people's attention, and at the very least, made it harder for them to hate him.
So what does all this mean for 2016? Civil liberties issues don't usually dominate presidential elections, and on the big issues—the economy, immigration reform, healthcare—Paul has been decidedly less bipartisan. But presidential elections are mostly a numbers game: As you are no doubt aware, Obama crushed both John McCain and Mitt Romney among voters ages 18-29 (66-32 and 60-37, respectively). But George W. Bush was basically tied with both Al Gore and John Kerry among that demographic. If Paul can use civil liberties as a wedge issue to eat away at Democratic margins with young people—particularly in swing states like Ohio, Virginia, Iowa, and in the West—he might actually have a shot in 2016. And the more Hillary Clinton keeps reminding people of her hawkish, autocratic proclivities the more likely it gets that voters will be open to other options.
Of course, no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, there are reasons to be concerned about the prospect of Rand Paul becoming the leader of the free world. (The Democratic National Committee has been happy to point these out—they've blasted out at least 16 emails about Paul this month, a sign that someone over there recognizes he might be a problem.) But there will be plenty of time to go into all of that later. For now, just consider this a fair warning.