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Hat in the ring, Rand Paul softens his message

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaks during a rally

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaks during a rally to formally announce his presidential campaign at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Ky., on Tuesday, April 7, 2015. Credit: Bloomberg News / Daniel Acker

The problem with Sen. Rand Paul's presidential candidacy seems to be that nearly anyone who might support him will have to believe the Kentucky Republican is lying "to satisfy those idiots" on at least some issues. And everyone will disagree on who the idiots are.

Paul's announcement Tuesday was "soft-core Paul" -- meant to make his oft-unusual beliefs sound acceptable to the broadest possible audience. So it's a tribute to him and a terrible indictment of our politics that, even as he has sometimes hedged and reversed, he is still highlighting tough topics and unfashionable stances far more than any other serious candidate is likely to.

But what's a voter to do with Rand Paul? Libertarian fans of Paul's dad, frequent presidential candidate Ron Paul, are the delightfully passionate core of the "Stand With Rand" crowd, and are crucial to the son's prospects.

But these are hard-core anti-Fed heads, and Rand Paul supports auditing the Federal Reserve, not ending it, as his father does.

These are serious opponents of the military-industrial complex, now dealing with a Paul, who recently supported a massive increase in military spending. Paul talked Tuesday about negotiating with Iran from a position of strength. But during the 2012 presidential race, his dad's position on Iran getting nuclear weapons was usually a shrug. He often reminded us that once enough of America's enemies get nukes, it's goofy to pick ones to panic about. Rand Paul is waffling on isolationism.

Paul says he opposes same-sex marriage. Serious libertarians oppose government licensing of any marriage. They believe it's none of the government's business either way. He says he opposes abortion. Libertarians generally believe that it's not a government issue.

But the mainstream Republicans Paul needs to attract to succeed are conflicted, saying, "I find him dynamic and exciting, but I kind of hate his guts, too."

They tend to love surveillance of the citizenry, based on the philosophy of, "If you're not doing anything wrong, you don't have anything to worry about," a theory made popular mostly by practically everybody's grandma. Paul hates it.

Paul says it's generally a bad idea to bomb folks. Mainstream Republicans have reliably supported killing foreigners with bombs.

Paul has teamed up with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to fight ridiculously long jail sentences for minor (often drug-related) offenses and racial disparities in sentencing. Mainstream Republicans either don't believe such overlong sentences and racial disparities exist or, worse, they do but don't oppose them.

But what does Paul, who aligned with his dad's views before he got serious about his own career, believe?

On Tuesday Paul said, "We've come to take our country back," from the special interests. Most will agree with that, particularly as long as they haven't examined their own special interests too closely. He assailed government borrowing. He said both parties and the entire political system are to blame, which can be relied on to make devotees of either party cheer, because . . . it just does, OK?

Paul also made sincere pleas for restrained government and maximized liberty, term limits, free markets, school choice, no more nation building overseas and an end to the government security overreaches since 9/11.

He made a lot of specific points worth talking about, even in a presentation meant to appeal to the most people possible. Did he say exactly what he felt about the path the nation should be on? I don't think so. Unlike his dad, Paul is going to try to run a real presidential campaign. That means he doesn't get the luxury of telling us what he truly thinks across the board, and we don't get the luxury of knowing.