For many, the word that comes to mind when they hear the name Rand Paul is likely “libertarian.” While he gladly embraces the label, Paul brands himself as more a pragmatist than purist, and he’s seeking a way to bring libertarians and social conservatives—long warring cousins on the right—together.
If successful, Paul’s effort could be the start of a fresh form of fusionism on the right that could be a significant asset if he seeks the White House in 2016.
Instead of adopting a hard line on issues like drug legalization and non-interventionism like his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the younger Paul speaks about these topics in a way he hopes will spark collaboration instead of squabbling. And it seems to be working.
Paul’s efforts were on display Wednesday night at a gala for the American Principles Project, a conservative group that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage and aims to promote religious liberty. The group's board includes Maggie Gallagher, one of the foremost advocates against same-sex marriage and Robert P. George, the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. APP is led by Francis P. Cannon, a conservative activist who authored a rebuttal report last year to calls within the Republican Party to de-emphasize social issues.
Speaking to a few hundred APP supporters at Washington, D.C.'s Mayflower hotel, Paul, knowing his audience, began by conceding that “libertarian,” is still “a bad word” to some. A few in the audience nodded.
“But libertarian, or liberty, doesn’t mean libertine,” Paul said. “To many of us, libertarian means freedom and liberty. But we also see freedom needs tradition.”
Such appeals are part and parcel of what for Paul has become an ongoing campaign to reach social conservatives. Last June, Paul spoke at the Faith and Freedom Summit, a conference organized by former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed, where he accused the Obama Administration of funding a “war on Christianity” abroad. In October, Paul addressed students of Liberty University, a school founded by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell.
Paul’s tone was softer Wednesday, when he argued that conservatives should support libertarian-backed initiatives like prison sentencing reform for non-violent drug users, and to take a stronger stand on defending the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unlawful searches.
To illustrate his point, he highlighted a law in his home state of Kentucky that prohibits anyone convicted of a felony from voting.
“A felony could be growing marijuana plants in college,” he said. “I think there are things we can and should talk about as Christians. We believe in forgiveness. I think the criminal justice system should have some element of forgiveness.”
A few years ago, Paul’s rhetoric may have gotten him accused of being soft on crime within Republican circles. But today, as the party is desperately seeking fresh inroads with black and Hispanic voters—two groups that are disproportionally affected by anti-drug laws, compared to whites—Paul’s message is starting to resonate. There’s evidence to suggest that these ideas are gaining support within the Republican Party. Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee is currently working with Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin on a bill that would reduce or eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders. Meanwhile, Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn is making a push to provide increased rehabilitation for some incarcerated offenders.
“I think these are things we can look at,” Paul said. “And I’m not talking about legalization. What I’m talking about is making the criminal justice system fair and giving people a second chance when they serve their time.”
The audience greeted his suggestions with a standing ovation at the end of the speech.
“Libertarians have been great promoters of free markets and economic freedom,” Cannon, the group’s president, told Yahoo News after the speech. “But within the movement, the question is how to marry that with both an expression that talks to workers rather than businesses, and I thought Paul was looking for a way to revive that fusionism now. I thought he did a great job.”
It's a message Paul delivers often, from colleagues on the Senate floor and evangelical pastors in Des Moines to African American students and immigration reform activists, and could be his ticket to the presidential campaign trail in 2016. The Republican candidate who can effectively capture the imagination of conservative voters in Iowa and unite them with center-right Republicans in New Hampshire--the first two electoral contests on the presidential nomination calendar--will be in a strong position heading into the primary season. It's far too early to tell, of course, whether Paul can pull it off.
Looking to 2016, he arguably has an advantage over his father, who made three unsuccessful White House bids during his political career. The younger Paul's "fusionist" approach—wedding libertarian economics, traditional values and novel policy ideas— could appeal to a broader set of Republican voters. And it might also, critically, alienate fewer of them.
It’s worth noting that the senior Paul made respectable inroads within the social conservative community in Iowa in 2012. But with the right tone and message, his son is hoping to takes things even further.