Rand Paul and his wife Kelley Paul deplane in Ventura County, California. Photos by Grace Wyler
I’m in an eight-seater plane, flying over the San Joaquin Valley with Rand Paul, the Tea Party-loving, filibustering provocateur of the US Senate, who is quickly climbing the shortlist of potential Republican contenders for the 2016 presidential race.
At this moment, the fiery sparkplug who demanded President Barack Obama explain his policy on drone-ing Americans and, more recently, berated his Senate colleagues for dragging Apple executives before a congressional hearing, is AWOL. Paul is tired and a little cranky. He’s losing his voice and he thinks he ate something that disagreed with him during his meeting at eBay's offices.
We’ve just finished a whirlwind tour of Silicon Valley, with stops at Facebook, Google and meetings with deep-pocketed techno-libertarian donors. But when I ask Paul what his favourite part of the trip was, his response is “golfing”, referring to the 27 rounds he played at a Half Moon Bay resort with his youngest son Robert, who is 14.
Rand Paul’s message to Facebook: give me Liberty and post it to Facebook.
By most measures, the trip has been a big success for Paul. The Kentucky Republican was well-received by tech executives – Mark Zuckerberg even flew back early from his trip to Europe to attend their meeting – and Paul has made the kind of valuable relationships he needs if he ever decides to run for president, which, at this point, seems like the plan.
So while Paul’s mood may not reflect his feelings about the trip, his fatigue is also understandable. In the three months since his 13-hour filibuster to protest Obama's drone policies, Paul has hit the pavement, wooing voters in key early primary states, trying to convince conservatives to embrace immigration reform and even making a stop at Howard University, a historically black college that rarely gets Republican visitors. After his trip to California, Paul will return to the Senate before flying back west the following weekend for a Park City confab with Republican donors, put together by his father’s former nemesis, Mitt Romney.
Through these appearances, Paul has emerged as an unlikely leader in the Republican Party’s quest to broaden its appeal beyond white male voters. After getting routed in the last two presidential elections, the GOP seems to have finally come to the realisation that it needs to win over at least a few blacks, Hispanics and young people. Paul, it turns out, is uniquely suited to this task.
Paul’s California adventure was an early attempt to reach out to these new voters, sketching a vague outline of the weird coalition that the Kentucky Republican is trying to unite – an unlikely group of Republican misfits that includes black conservatives, rich Silicon Valley libertarians, disenchanted young Obama voters and Bible-thumping evangelicals.
On Paul’s first night out in California, I ran into Miles, a guy I knew in college, at a fundraiser for the Senator hosted by the Frederick Douglass Foundation, described on its website as the “largest Christ-centered, multiethnic and Republican ministry in America".
Miles is a 24-year-old from San Francisco, and grew up with what he describes as a “liberal background". He spent the summer after his freshman year interning in then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in Washington. But somewhere between his Capitol Hill internship and graduation, Miles had a political awakening.
“I didn't know what the word liberty meant – I just thought it meant generic freedom,” Miles told me. “At the time, I was making phone calls for Obama, and after he won and I saw the continuation of many Bush policies, I realised that the person at the top can change, but that they're just going to keep signing the same bills.”
Miles believes that the system is broken. He opposes what he sees as an excess of government spending, thinks the US should stop getting involved in foreign conflicts – “neocons are among the worst things to ever happen to this country” – and is particularly concerned with the Obama administration’s infringement on civil liberties.
“This type of stuff is what gets under my skin,” he said. “I wish more people would wake up to the fact that it is both parties carrying out authoritarian action like this.”
Miles said that, while he doesn’t agree with Paul on everything, the Kentucky Senator “has done a good job of addressing the issues that I care about”. Libertarianism, he added, “is really the only position you can take without tacitly endorsing the system”.
As Paul’s fundraiser was winding down, I met another potential Paul convert: Frank, a teacher from Oakland, California. Frank told me that he used to teach at Oakland’s Fremont High School, but left after 12 years when one of his students was shot and killed and the funeral service was subsequently shot up by gang members.
“That was really just the last straw,” said Frank, who now teaches at a private high school in Hayward, a tiny Oakland suburb.
“The difference between the education that kids are getting at Fremont and kids are getting at this private school, it’s just hurtful,” he said. “The government is just pouring money into fixing these schools, but it’s not working.”
Frank, who described himself as a liberal, said that he was curious to meet Paul, and ended up getting into an extended conversation with the senator and his wife, Kelley Paul, about education policy.
“He’s not like a normal politician,” Frank said. “He was genuinely interested in what I had to say. And it sounds like he actually wants to do something to fix education.”
It’s not surprising that voters like Frank and Miles would be attracted to Paul. Their experience with politics and government has been fucked up. That's a common trend among young voters, in particular. Their political awareness began with the Supreme Court’s Gore vs. Bush debacle, and since then they’ve experienced 9/11, two bloody wars (one of which was based on a lie), the meltdown of the financial system and subsequent bank bailout, ballooning student loan debt, home foreclosures and the steady expansion of the national security state.
Amid this mess, Paul has emerged as a rare politician who is ideologically consistent and who is at least trying to come up with solutions.
Of course, Paul is far from a perfect. His plans to slash government spending, dismantle the Department of Education and his support for a federal union-busting bill make him an easy Tea Party caricature for liberals. Some of his statements, like his repeated calls to cut off foreign aid to Egypt and Pakistan, tend to come across as half-baked or tone-deaf.
But Paul’s ideological zeal allows people to take him or leave him. And in California, a surprising number of people seemed to opt for the former.
"He's clearly inspiring people, and he's inspiring people who have been somewhat disillusioned at times,” Trygve Olson, one of Paul’s senior advisors, told me outside of the Reagan Library, where 950 people showed up to hear Paul’s speech.
“He has a set of values and those values are clearly resonating with mainstream conservatives and Republicans, but he's also applying those values to issues and concerns that nontraditional Republicans care about,” Olson added.
Rand Paul fans wait in line for his book-signing at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Libary.
The question for Paul now is whether he can appeal to the disparate corners of the Republican Party’s potential coalition without appearing to pander – a daunting task as he attempts to unite socially liberal techno-libertarians with the conservative Christian elements of the GOP base.
“He's probably the best chance the Republicans have in Silicon Valley to reshift the political balance,” said Craig Montouri, a Silicon Valley start-up founder who attended a private dinner with Paul in Half Moon Bay. “He's got a good base of support, but it's unclear how deep that base of support is.
“Some of us are projecting libertarian ideas on to him,” Montouri added. “When it comes to the Bay Area, no matter how economically libertarian someone is, if they want to control what people do in our personal lives, people are going to recoil.”
The fine line that Paul has to walk on regarding social issues was clearly drawn when we arrived in California, where the Kentucky Senator and his family were greeted by a pit crew of social conservatives, including David Lane, the evangelical mastermind behind Rick Perry’s “Response” prayer rally, and Rex Ellsass, an Ohio-based GOP operative who has made his reputation – and fortune – representing socially conservative politicians, including Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin of “legitimate rape” fame.
But Paul’s message on social issues was remarkably consistent throughout his trip to California.
“I think on the cultural issues, I'm for agreeing to disagree,” Paul told me in an interview. “I think some parts of the country are going to be more conservative than others, and I think we can accept that by bringing a federalist type of approach to these issues.
“There will be some states that will be more liberal and some states that will be more conservative, but what will unite most of us in the Republican Party will be that we want smaller government, less debt, more freedom to pursue the activities you want to pursue to succeed in life.”
Surprisingly, social conservatives who encountered Paul seemed OK with that position.
“I don't feel like I am being suckered,” said Rob McCoy, the pastor of Godspeak Calvary Chapel, where Paul spoke. “We disagree in some areas, but I can honestly say that he seeks to understand me – not necessarily to agree with me, but to understand me.
“I don't want a guy who is going to play to our camp – we've had that,” McCoy added. “But I've seen him speak to a lot of groups, and he's always honest in his approach."
Pastor Rob McCoy introduces Rand Paul at Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Thousand Oaks, California.
Paul’s lack of pandering seems to stem, in part, from the fact that he is not a natural politician – he comes across as shy, even standoffish, in social settings, and his speeches are often awkward or tone-deaf (his comparison between Guantanamo Bay and lynching, for example, tends to fall flat with black audiences). He’s a big fan of mock turtlenecks and usually looks like he just got out of a pool. And he definitely doesn’t give off the vibe of someone who has always wanted to run for president.
While Paul will undoubtedly become more polished over time, for now, at least, his advisors see his political weirdness as an asset.
“He's unimpressed completely with people who zealously pursue power – he does what's in his heart, what he thinks is right, and people can sense that authenticity and that breath of fresh of air,” Ellsass said.
“He transcends the calculation of political, Machiavellian schemes. It creates a real optimism because its true,” he added. "There's nothing else like it in American politics. Everyone else has spent decades and decades of calculating how to get there… He is just a smart man who has had common experiences.”
But without some personal sense of Manifest Destiny, why would Paul even want to run for president? At times, including on our plane flight, it seems as though Paul would much rather pass on ruling the free world, and instead be home in Kentucky, riding his lawnmower (his favourite “gadget”) and hanging out with his super-cute wife.
On the plane, I asked Paul whether he sometimes thinks about giving it all up.
“Life's easier if you don't accept new challenges,” he responded. “I don't regret that I've been allowed to be in this position – I consider it a great honour to be part of the national debate and I really do want to shake things up and try to improve the lot for the country, and for everybody in the country.
“I think everybody has moments when they think, 'Man, I'd like to be at home with my family and practicing medicine,’” he said. Then he laughs: “What I'd really like to do is practice medicine and do this, but that’s not so easy.”