Senator Rand Paul: Rallying the Conservatarian Movement

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Last week, thousands gathered at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where the theme was "America's Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives". This year’s conference was directed at the newer, younger face of the conservative movement.   In fact, the opening invocation was given by 16 year old Bethany Bowra, the young woman who founded the website Next Generation Voters at just fourteen years old.   A growing segment of the conservative movement was front and center through the weekend–conservatives who identify strongly with libertarian ideals, often referred to as conservatarians. The popularity of the conservatarian stance can be seen in the results of the CPAC Straw Poll, which many pundits consider to be the beginning of the 2016 Primary process. Tea Party favorite, CPAC 2013 speaker and outspoken libertarian Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky won the Poll with 25% of the vote.

Thus far in his political career, Senator Paul has shown much of the fiscal tenacity of his father without exuding the ‘crazy-uncle-at-the-family-dinner’ vibe Ron Paul gave to many conservative voters. A self-described “constitutional conservative”, Paul was elected to the United States Senate in 2010 and co-founded the Tea Party Caucus within the Senate. In early 2011 Paul released a book, The Tea Party Goes to Washington, outlining many of his fiscal-conservative tenets and libertarian positions on issues of all kinds, from the Patriot Act to the Balanced Budget Amendment. In his book, Paul demonstrated one of the strengths that has endeared him to many in the younger conservative/conservatarian generation: Rand fights for ideas over party, taking on Democrats and Republicans alike for their failure to demonstrate fiscal sensibility and for their lack of spine when it comes to defending the Constitution.

Winning the straw poll is one of many recent milestones for this rising star; March has been a huge month for Rand. A couple of weeks ago, a confirmation vote for CIA chief nominee John Brennan was halted by a real, old-fashioned, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”-style filibuster spearheaded by Senator Paul. Back in February, Brennan told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the Obama Administration had not carried out drone strikes inside the United States and had no intention of doing so. Clarification was requested, so Attorney General Eric Holder replied that the U.S. has the authority to carry out drone strikes on American soil, but that the U.S. had no intention of doing so. This rattled Paul’s libertarian principles, leading him to comment, "My objection really is not so much to Brennan being in charge of the CIA. My objection is to the program and to the President not admitting that he can't do drone strikes in America." Nevertheless, his determination to make that point and to make American citizens aware of the situation led to his historic, thirteen hour filibuster on the Senate floor.

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In Senator Paul’s opening statement of the filibuster, he stated, “I will speak until I can no longer speak. I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.” Within minutes, Rand and the filibuster became trending topics on Twitter, with countless supporters tweeting that they wanted to #StandWithRand. Many liberal Democrats had to admit that Senator Paul had a valid point as he noted, "When I asked the President, can you kill an American on American soil, it should have been an easy answer. It's an easy question. It should have been a resounding and unequivocal, 'no.' The President's response? He hasn't killed anyone yet. We're supposed to be comforted by that. The President says, I haven't killed anyone yet. He goes on to say, 'and I have no intention of killing Americans. But I might.' Is that enough? Are we satisfied by that? Are we so complacent with our rights that we would allow a President to say he might kill Americans?"

In a show of bipartisan support, Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat, went to the Senate floor to support Paul’s filibuster, and Senators Jeff Merkley, Pat Leahy and (Independent) Bernie Sanders all voted against Brennan's confirmation, citing many of the same concerns raised by Paul. Van Jones called Paul “a hero for civil liberties”, while MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow praised Paul for his ability to keep going for hours, staying on topic versus reading from the phone book or playing other parlor games, bestowing upon Paul and his filibuster her "Best New Thing In The World" honor. Anyone who can get conservatives, libertarians, and liberal Democrats to come together in support is definitely a force with which to be reckoned.

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This week, Senator Paul has again taken actions that may invigorate conservatarians and help the GOP break from its uptight, out-of-touch reputation. During an address to the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Tuesday, Paul declared, “Immigration Reform will not occur until Conservative Republicans, like myself, become part of the solution.   I am here today to begin that conversation.” He went on to note, “In our zeal for border control, we have sometimes obscured our respect and admiration for immigrants and their contribution to America….Somewhere along the line Republicans have failed to understand and articulate that immigrants are an asset to America, not a liability.” Speaking to reporters, Paul said “as long as those here want to work, I’d get them work visas, and as long as they want to apply, you get in the normal line for citizenship that’s already available, so it’s not a new pathway, it’s an existing pathway”.

Paul’s willingness to rethink immigration and distance himself from the (mistaken) idea that all Republicans want to kick every last illegal immigrant out of the country could be a major turning point for the GOP as it struggles to redefine itself. Add to that the respect he gained for his old-school filibuster and the A+ he recently received from FreedomWorks for his balanced budget proposal, and it’s no surprise he was the frontrunner at CPAC this year. After losing the 2012 battle, Republicans are ready to get back in the game. Senator Rand Paul could be just the man to lead the charge.