In Iowa, a tale of two Rand Pauls

Bored by establishment politics, he lights up in a room of college students

In Iowa, a tale of two Rand Pauls

MARSHALLTOWN, IA – “You can say I’m thin-skinned,” Rand Paul said, “or you can say I’m frustrated.”

Paul, the Republican U.S. senator from Kentucky, was sitting in the private dining room of a local sports bar here in central Iowa, explaining to me how one of his worst weeks as a national political figure was the media’s fault.

“You can get sort of a news cycle that becomes sort of a media maelstrom where things just circulate around,” he said. “Let’s say I go to Poland. I get to Poland, and I meet with an ex-Communist. The next article says, ‘Paul went to Poland.’ The second article says, ‘Paul met with ex-Communists.’ The third article says, ‘Paul is a Communist.’ And the fourth article says, ‘Paul’s starting the Communist Party in America.’”

“This is what happens,” he concluded. “You can say I’m thin-skinned or I’m just sometimes not happy if things aren’t reported accurately.”

Paul insisted that when he said he’d heard of “many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines,” he was not asserting a causal link between vaccines and autism but simply noting that he had heard parents talk of such concerns. It was the media that was distorting his comments and making of them a controversy, he said.

Watching Paul campaign in Iowa, it seemed at times as if there are two Rand Pauls vying for a place on the national stage. One Paul had allowed himself to grow so frustrated with a female CNBC interviewer that he shushed her on live TV. This Paul appeared lackadaisical at meetings with big money donors and party insiders, GOP sources have told Yahoo News, and has shown little interest in small talk, at least with reporters. This Sen. Paul doesn’t impress the Beltway media or GOP elites, and doesn’t seem to care—or, at least, not enough to change his ways.

But then there is the other Rand Paul, the man who, despite fighting a cold, rallied voters with impassioned remarks this weekend in Iowa. Whoever emerges from the “big tug of war” that will be the 2016 Republican primary will need to demonstrate “strength of leadership,” he told a crowded room of diners at the Legends American Grill restaurant here Saturday morning.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks during a rally hosted by Liberty Iowa, Friday, Feb. 6, 2015, at Jasper Winery in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks during a rally hosted by Liberty Iowa, Friday, Feb. 6, 2015, at Jasper Winery in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

“It’s not going to take a ho-hum, same old, same old, we’ll get a Republican that’s a little bit different than the Democrats,” Paul said from the small makeshift stage. “It’s going to take someone who can unite the country, Republican, Democrat, working class, business class, rich, poor, black, white, you name it. When our party looks like the rest of America, we’re gonna win.”

On a two-day trip Friday and Saturday to the state whose voters will caucus first in 2016, the detached, irritable Paul gave way to a warmly enthusiastic one. On Saturday, he drove an hour west from Marshalltown to Ames to attend an Iowa State basketball game, joining Republican businessman Steve Sukup in seats at center court. During the game, Paul showed only moderate interest as the 11th-ranked Cyclones dismantled Texas Tech, sitting with his legs crossed and leaning over to talk with Sukup during lulls in the action.

Paul brightened after he left the game at halftime and walked to a nearby campus building to speak with a group of college students. As he discussed privacy concerns and religious liberty, he grew so animated that he had to check himself to stop talking before the second half of the basketball game — which was being shown on two big screens behind him — began.

“Have they started the game yet? I’m gonna wrap it up really quick. I get going and I get excited about the Fourth Amendment,” he said.

Before he finished, he made sure to tell the students about his opposition to President Obama’s attorney general nominee, Loretta Lynch. Paul is gearing up to make his opposition to Lynch another high-publicity moment where he draws attention to an issue he appears to believe is one he can use to build his national profile: civil asset forfeiture.

Just as he filibustered against Obama’s nominee for director of the CIA two years ago to call attention to the possible use of drones against U.S. citizens, Paul is hoping to use Lynch’s nomination to brand himself as a different kind of politician: one fighting for regular people against a threatening government behemoth willing to violate their rights.

Paul’s case against Lynch goes to her work as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, where she presided over implementation of the forfeiture laws, including the government seizure of $113 million in private assets from individuals on the suspicion that they had committed crimes. In one case, her office presided over the Internal Revenue Service’s May 2012 seizure of nearly $447,000 from the bank account of Bi-County Distributors, a Long Island family business run by three brothers that supplies convenience stores with cigarettes and candy. The seizure was based on Bi-County’s making bank deposits that were frequently just below the IRS reporting threshold of $10,000 — actions that sometimes signal an effort to mask illegal activity.

For two years, the brothers — who were never charged with a crime — could not get the money returned. But in October 2014, a nonprofit legal organization, the Institute for Justice, took up the Bi-County Distributors case. That same month, The New York Times wrote an article detailing the government’s use of civil forfeiture laws and featuring Bi-County’s predicament along with that of a cash-only Mexican restaurant in Iowa whose $33,000 bank account was seized by government agents. In January, Lynch’s office agreed to return the money to Bi-County.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., greets supporters before speaking at a rally hosted by Liberty Iowa, Friday, Feb. 6, 2015, at the Jasper Winery in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., greets supporters before speaking at a rally hosted by Liberty Iowa, Friday, Feb. 6, 2015, at the Jasper Winery in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

In response to the controversy, Eric Holder’s Justice Department in January 2015 issued an order prohibiting the federal government from seizing property except for that associated with a narrow band of public safety concerns or child porn. Last year, the IRS also promised to “curtail” its use of forfeiture laws. But neither move is enough for Paul, who in late January introduced legislation he’s cosponsoring to beef up protections for citizens and further restrict the practice of asset seizures by the government. And he made clear in two different speeches here in Iowa over the weekend that he intends to draw further attention to the issue during Lynch’s nomination process.

“I think there’s a great opportunity for us to reach out to new people who haven’t been interested in the Republican message, if we are the party that believes in justice, [if] we are the party that you are innocent until proven guilty,” Paul said, as he told the Iowa State students about Lynch. “If you look at civil forfeiture, who do you think is most affected? Poor people, black people, brown people, people who live in the cities, people who don’t have the ability to defend themselves. So if we become that party, where we’re the party of justice that cares about the people who don’t have all the protections of money, I think then we become a big enough force that we’re unstoppable.”

Three students who sat listening quietly to Paul said afterward they were intrigued by his message.

Brianna Gerads, a 20-year-old software engineering major, said she voted for President Obama in 2012. But even though she described herself as liberal on social issues, she said that in 2014 Democrats “focused too much on social issues and not things that can help our economy and our debt.” She said she would consider voting for Paul for president.

Rodney Barto, a 21-year-old software engineering student, said he was not a Republican or a Democrat. But the one thing he was for was smaller government. “Big government tries to control things that should be controlled by smaller government. They don’t know what’s best,” Barto said.

And Brandon Jones, a 19-year-old civil engineering major, said he had always been a Democrat, but that he was unimpressed with the Democratic Party at the moment. A Chicago native and African-American, Jones is the kind of student with whom Paul is aspiring to connect. Jones said he was open to learning more about Paul.

“I’m really new to the less government thing,” Jones said. Then, having placed a sticker on his T-shirt that said, “Big government sucks,” Jones walked over to get a picture with Paul.

If Paul can convert curiosity among college students like these into actual caucus votes next January, it could make him a force in what promises to be a very crowded, fiercely contested 2016 primary.

The latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg News poll of Iowa voters showed Paul in second place in the state, behind only Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and ahead of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (who won the 2008 caucuses) former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, physician Ben Carson and others. Paul’s best hope is that the field in Iowa remains large and that the Christian conservative vote is carved up among several candidates, while the establishment GOP voters split between Bush, Christie and Walker.

“We want ’em all. The more the merrier,” Paul said of the Iowa caucus field. “We have a dedicated niche of followers that, if it is expanded, can be a winning coalition.”

Paul’s goal is to build on the support that carried his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex), to a third-place finish in the 2012 caucuses, with 21.5 percent of the vote; to win over some regular caucus-goers who may have found his father too ideological; and to win over and then mobilize new voters in the same way President Obama did in 2008.

Paul ended his remarks to the college students by asking them to give their e-mail addresses to the group hosting the event, Young Americans for Liberty, which is aligned with Paul.

An aide spoke up from the back: “Almost everyone signed up already.”