On April 7, Rand Paul formally announced his campaign for President. While many libertarians were eagerly awaiting that day for months or even years, others merely rolled their eyes at what they see as just another politician. Aside from a filibuster of the nomination of CIA Director John Brennan two years ago, this is the first time Rand has garnered significant national attention. But in contrast to most American voters, I have personal experience with Rand as a candidate, meeting him five years ago as part of Young Americans for Liberty’s Spring Break in Kentucky program.
In March 2010, I spent my spring break in the Louisville, Ky. area at a Lions Club camp. We received campaign training including attending lectures from influential figures around the country, stuffing envelopes, and conducting “Voter ID” door-to-door around Louisville, asking likely Republicans who they preferred for Senate (for which Rand was in the running along with challenger Trey Grayson) and several local races.
The highlight of the event was visiting a hotel in downtown Louisville and meeting Rand himself. He gave a stump speech on coal along with Grayson, who had no supporters while the Paul crowd consisted of a vociferous 80 supporters. In another speech he gave to us beforehand, he entertained questions from the audience. I was able to pose the final question, and asked about something that I had learned shortly before and that had surprised me: Rand opposed cutting defense spending. In his response, he said he would cut from other areas of the federal budget, but leave defense spending alone. Shortly afterwards, another participant remarked that they thought Rand gave a good answer. I reluctantly agreed, although I was skeptical. Indeed, Rand would flip-flop on this position the next year in a TV interview.
This taught me a valuable lesson about politics: Politicians usually say what others want to hear, especially within their target voting blocs, and not what they actually believe. Many people, especially libertarians, make too much out of simple one-liners and other actions, such as Rand’s endorsement of Mitt Romney for President in 2012. This is often both politically necessary and inconsequential. Other than Rand in that instance, endorsements seldom make news and are merely routine. Similarly, professing one set of beliefs during a primary and another during a general election is the political norm.
That’s not to say that all of Rand’s beliefs and remarks are good, however. His opposition to the Civil Rights Act, however justifiable from a libertarian position against violating the private property rights of business owners, was a gaffe that had to be quickly reversed and compelled him to cancel an appearance on Meet the Press. He also has a reputation as a hot-headed interviewee, most recently with Savannah Guthrie on The Today Show when he aggressively denied Guthrie’s claims that he changed his positions on several issues, though Guthrie is clearly correct and Paul had to attempt to play it off. Much of Rand’s flip-flopping was politically necessary, especially with the Republican primary base being so far to the right, and he couldn’t directly acknowledge the fact that any Republican presidential candidate with a hope of being elected must change their positions frequently. Yet he should not have reacted as sharply as he did in that interview or in several previous instances with similar reactions.
From observing Rand Paul over the past five years, I’ve been able to extrapolate these lessons to electoral politics in general. In addition to meeting Rand in 2010, I attended the Texas GOP Convention in 2012 as an alternate delegate. Observing the extreme views of many of the delegates there made me understand why GOP hopefuls have to move so far to the right during primaries. I realized that the real problem was not who ended up getting elected, but the fact that the two-party system enables those with the most extreme views to become the ones who get elected.
One thing almost every libertarian can agree on, regardless of whether he or she votes or for whom they vote, is that the endless mudslinging and political gamesmanship is inconsequential. The only thing that matters are the actions taken by individuals, both in government and civil society, which affect the lives of others. So with all the endless Facebook posts and verbal arguments over the next 18 months on the American presidential campaign, be sure to keep things in perspective and remember that regardless of what a candidate may claim they believe, they all have the same end goal in mind: becoming the 45th President. But even the question of who occupies the Oval Office is trivial compared to the reform of the two-party system. Whether it should be gradual reform from within, an anarchist revolution, or anything in between, depends on whatever can gain traction. Yet it is this that is most important: true change, and foresight beyond yet another election cycle.