Dissecting Randpaulism

As a follow-on to my last post, and in recognition of the fact that like it or not (and I don’t), the junior senator from Kentucky is indisputably the Man of the Day, I encourage others to emulate Jonathan Chait’s effort to figure out what the guy actually stands for in the context of a radicalized but not necessarily libertarian Republican Party:

Paul’s sudden ascent represents the convergence of two broad currents of Republican thought. The first is the rise of Ayn Rand-ism, which has become the party’s main ideological response to the Obama years. Randism is an apocalyptic mind-set that conceives of politics as a struggle between makers and takers. Not just Paul himself, but such diverse figures as CNBC shouting head and tea-party father Rick Santelli, Paul Ryan, AEI President Arthur Brooks, and Cruz — who quoted Ayn Rand while enthusiastically leaping to Paul’s defense — have all claimed the deep influence of Rand.

It may seem more surprising that a party that veered so far right on foreign policy under George W. Bush might rally around a figure like Paul. Doesn’t anybody remember Ron Paul consistently drawing mockery from fellow presidential candidates and boos from audiences for his isolationist homilies? Why did Republicans suddenly stop hating this stuff?

One reason is that Paul himself was never exactly libertarian. He opposed the construction of a Muslim cultural center in lower Manhattan, opposed Obama’s attempts to close down the prison at Guantánamo Bay (“These thugs should stand before military tribunals and be kept off American soil”), and even endorsed imprisoning people who attend radical Islamist speeches. What he represents is a particular paleoconservative fear of government being turned against them. Where he has been most at odds with the party base is Israel, and here he has shrewdly and unashamedly remade his position to become acceptable to the base.

Another reason Paul has succeeded is that Republican hawkery was never quite as intellectually coherent as the neoconservatives liked to believe. As Ross Douthat astutely observes, “What Paul seems to understand is that the Republican base doesn’t really have a detailed set of foreign policy positions: What it has, instead, is the cluster of sympathies and instincts (pro-Israel, pro-military, nationalist rather than globalist, fretful about radical Islam, skeptical of international institutions).”

You have to factor in, as I argued in my own post, Paul’s impeccable timing: finding a way to go after the president that was guaranteed to excite Obama-haters, disarm (if not embarrass) many Democrats, and give Republicans frustrated with the relatively small impact of their Benghazi! crusade a fresh chance to score some points on a subject somewhat related to foreign policy. It also probably didn’t hurt that Paul could count on Mitch McConnell handling him with kid gloves at a time when Kentucky wingnuts have been muttering vague threats of resisting the Leader’s re-election.

Chait seems to think Paul’s “moment” will have a very short shelf-life, despite fresh evidence of his strong interest in running for president in 2016. Perhaps he’s right; Paul has a list of extremist statements and associations as long as his arm, and it’s not as though the GOP has its 2012 problem of a potential field loaded with very weak candidates. But I wouldn’t underestimate Rand. It astonished me that he was able to beat a relatively strong primary candidate in Kentucky in 2010 without his foreign policy views sinking him. And nothing’s happened since then to raise doubts about his political instincts. He’ll inherit his father’s famously intense following with significantly less baggage (which says a lot about how much baggage the old man had!). And he has lots of time not only to finesse the issues that could kill him with movement conservatives, and to define Randpaulism according to his own needs.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.