Rand Paul: All You Need to Know

Rand Paul
U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), a 2016 Republican White House hopeful, greets supporters in Milford, New Hampshire April 8, 2015. Joel Page/Reuters

Is America ready for a “Libertarian-ish” president? We are about to find out.

On Monday, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) formally announced his presidential campaign, making him the second Republican candidate, after Ted Cruz, to officially throw his hat into the ring.

On many issues, Paul sounds a lot like his Republican rivals. He is running as an outsider on the slogan of: “Defeat the Washington Machine, Unleash the American Dream.” He wants lower taxes, less regulation, and more school choice.

But on foreign policy, Paul offers GOP primary voters a choice rather than an echo. He is decidedly less hawkish than his rivals for the nomination. For that he will get a lot of criticism from his fellow Republicans.

But in his short political career Paul has shown that he gives as good as he gets. So expect a Republican primary with some fireworks–and a test of the claim that Americans are souring on internationalism.

The Basics:

Name: Randal “Rand” Howard Paul

Date of Birth: January 7, 1963

Place of Birth: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Religion: Episcopalian

Political Party: Republican Party

Marital Status: Married to Kelley

Children: William (21), Duncan (18) and Robert (15)

Alma Mater: Baylor University; Duke University Medical School

Career: U.S. Senator from Kentucky (2011–present); Ophthalmologist

Twitter Handle: @SenRandPaul

Paul took the stage at his campaign kickoff event today in a hotel ballroom in Louisville, Kentucky to the enthusiastic and alliterative cheers of President Paul!” He didn’t bury his lead:

I have a message that is loud and clear and it does not mince words. We have come to take our country back.

Doing that mean returning to the principles of the Constitution:

We need to go boldly forth under the banner of liberty that clutches the Constitution in one hand and the Bill of Rights in the other.

Like Ted Cruz, Paul sounded an anti-Washington, anti-establishment theme. He blamed the “Washington Machine” for most of the country’s problems:

Washington is horribly broken. I fear it can’t be fixed from within. We the people must rise up and demand action.

He didn’t spare his fellow Republicans in his attacks on Washington. In talking about the national debt he argued that:

Both parties and the entire political system are to blame. Big government and debt doubled under a Republican administration and is now tripling under Barack Obama’s watch.

Not surprisingly, Paul called for a smaller federal government that taxes less, spends less and does less. He endorsed a balanced budget amendment, congressional term limits and requiring members of Congress to read legislation before they vote on it.

Paul devoted a good portion of his announcement speech to foreign policy. He wants “an America strong enough to deter foreign aggression, but wise enough to avoid unnecessary intervention.” He singled out jihadists as enemy Number 1, but he won’t get bogged down in rebuilding other societies:

In my vision for America, freedom and prosperity at home can only be achieved if we defend against enemies who are dead-set on attacking America. The enemy is radical Islam and not only will I name the enemy, I will do whatever it takes to defend America from these haters of mankind!

We need a national defense robust enough to defend against all attack, modern enough to deter all enemies and nimble enough to defend our vital interests. But we also need a foreign policy that protects American interests and encourages stability, not chaos! I envision an America with a national defense unparalleled, undefeatable and unencumbered by overseas nation building!

By the same token, Paul says he plans to be strong enough to negotiate with others:

Everyone needs to realize that negotiations are not inherently bad. The trust [but] verify is required in any negotiation, but then our goal always should be and always is peace, not war.

Just don’t expect a Paul administration to use foreign aid to win friends and influence people overseas:

We must realize, though, that we do not project strength by borrowing money from China to send it Pakistan.

Let’s quit building bridges in foreign countries and use that money to build some bridges here at home.

Expect to hear these lines, and variants on them, a lot in the weeks and months to come.

Paul’s Story

Rand Paul’s website states his pitch to the voters succinctly: He is “an outspoken champion for constitutional liberties and fiscal responsibility, and a warrior against government overreach.” Paul rode the Tea Party wave in 2010 to the seat he currently occupies in the Senate. It was his first try at political office.

He was previously an ophthalmologist in Bowling Green, Kentucky. But his father is Ron Paul, and he frequently worked on his dad’s campaigns. So Rand has been active in politics for most of his life.

Paul made national news in 2013 when he waged a 13-hour filibuster on the Senate floor against the John Brennan’s nomination to be the Director of Central Intelligence. Paul’s beef had less to do with Brennan’s qualifications for the job and more to do with the Obama administration’s drone policy, particularly the White House’s refusal to state definitively whether drones can be used against American citizens on U.S. soil.

The filibuster won Paul a lot of fans with civil liberties activists on the left and right. It was a mere speed bump, however, on Brennan’s way to the CIA directorship. It also had no discernible impact on U.S. policy.

Paul’s Senate seat expires in 2016. But winning the presidency is no easy feat. So he has taken to heart the advice to always have a Plan B. He wants to run for reelection to the Senate even as he seeks the GOP presidential nomination.

One thing stands in his way: Kentucky law forbids candidates from appearing twice on the same ballot. Paul hopes to circumvent this hurdle by having Kentucky hold a separate presidential caucus before it holds its regular primary for all other offices.

Kentucky GOP leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), have approved the plan. It just awaits the approval of the Kentucky Republican Party as a whole. That decision will come in August. There is one clear downside to holding a separate presidential caucus: it will cost extra money. Paul has offered to help raise the funds needed to cover the additional expense.

Social media will figure prominently in Paul’s campaign. He has used Twitter aggressively to tweak his opponents, including his fellow Republicans. To note just one example, he has used Twitter to accuse Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) of wanting to “build a moat” around Cuba.

Paul’s Twitter tweaking strategy has received mixed reviews. Some commentators think that Paul’s social media skills give him an edge in reaching new constituencies, particularly younger voters. Others accuse him of “trolling” and say he is not displaying the gravitas Americans expect in their presidents. If Paul’s tweets should ever become controversial, he has one obvious out: he doesn’t write most of his tweets. His staffers do.

Paul’s Message

Paul stands out in the GOP field. He is not a clone of his father, Ron Paul, who ran for the presidency in 1988 on the Libertarian Party ticket. The younger Paul once told Reason magazine:

I’ve heard from people who love my dad who don’t like some of the positions I’ve taken. Well, I love my dad, too, but I don’t agree with him all of the time.

That said, Rand remains the most libertarian member of the likely Republican presidential field. Indeed, he calls himself “libertarian-ish.” The question is how well that worldview will sell with more traditional Republicans. It could ensure that he enjoys a high floor in his voter appeal. It could also mean that he faces a potentially low ceiling.

Last October, Time magazine put Paul on its cover and asked, “Can he fix what ails the GOP?” Paul certainly has ambitions to remake the Republican Party. After Mitt Romney lost in 2012, Paul told CNN that the GOP was “in danger of becoming a dinosaur,” adding:

We need a new type of Republican [Party], I think, one that involves some of the ideas of libertarian leaning Republicans and people who agree in a less aggressive foreign policy.

He went further in a conversation last year with Glenn Beck:

I think Republicans will not win [the presidency] again in my lifetime… unless they become a new GOP, a new Republican Party. And it has to be a transformation. Not a little tweaking at the edges… I will struggle to make the Republican Party a different party, a bigger party, a more diverse party, and a party that can win national elections again.

Paul laments the GOP’s failure to court younger voters and especially minorities:

Republicans haven’t gone to African-Americans or to Hispanics and said, “You know what? The war on drugs, Big Government, has had a racial outcome. It’s disproportionately affected the poor and the black and brown among us.”

Paul’s assessment of the demographic challenge facing the Republican Party has caught the attention of some Democrats. Former Obama advisor Dan Pfeiffer says of Paul:

He is the only Republican who seems to know about what their long-term structural problems are… I think it’s a little bit of a warning sign to Democrats.

But it’s not clear that Republicans are taking to heart what Paul has to say.

Foreign Policy Views

Paul lives in his father’s shadow when it comes to foreign policy. The elder Paul’s unbending non-interventionist philosophy put him well outside the GOP mainstream. The younger Paul is quick to argue that America’s overseas activities have often failed to advance American interests.

But he also knows that being seen as an isolationist is a kiss of death in modern American politics. So it’s not surprising that last September he penned an op-ed for Time magazine entitled, “I Am Not an Isolationist.”

Paul laid out his foreign policy vision in a speech last October to the Center for the National Interest. He advocated “a foreign policy that recognizes our limits and preserves our might, a common sense conservative realism of strength and action.” He laid out four principles of this “conservative realism.”

First, the United States should be cautious in using military force:

War is necessary when America is attacked or threatened, when vital American interests are attacked and threatened, and when we have exhausted all other measures short of war. While no foreign policy should preclude the use of force…war should never be the first resort.

Second, when the United States does use military force, that decision must authorized by Congress, not launched based on vague claims of presidential power or at the behest of foreign governments:

Congress, the people’s representative, must authorize the decision to intervene….

Let me be very clear: France doesn’t send our men and women in uniform to war, the United Nations doesn’t send our soldiers to war, Congress and only Congress can constitutionally initiate war!

Third, the United States must be committed to both diplomacy and leadership:

Military force is meaningless if our leaders cannot reinforce American diplomacy through engagement and leadership.

President Obama never invested in relationships with Congress, and the same is true of his foreign policy. To have friends, you have to be a friend.

Fourth, American power abroad rests on having a strong economy at home.

Our national power is a function of the national economy. During the Reagan renaissance, our strength in the world reflected our successful economy.

Low growth, high unemployment, and big deficits have undercut our influence in the world. Americans have suffered real consequences from a weak economy.

How do those broad principles translate into practice? Paul has argued that the United States has lacked a clear objective in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has harshly criticized the decision to intervene in Libya, because “Libya is now more chaotic and America is less safe.” He supports air strikes in Syria, but he adamantly opposes arming Syrian rebels.

Most of Paul’s likely Republican presidential rivals have criticized President Obama’s strategy for stopping Iran’s nuclear program and have called for more sanctions on Tehran. Paul has defended Obama’s approach, however, and challenged two of Obama’s loudest critics, Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio, on the issue:

Are you ready to send ground troops into Iran? Are you ready to bomb them? Are you ready to send in 100,000 troops? …I’m a big fan of trying to exert and trying the diplomatic option as long as we can. If it fails, I will vote to resume sanctions and I would vote to have new sanctions.

But Paul was also one of the 47 senators who signed the letter written by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) warning Iran that any deal it signs might be quickly undone. That sparked talk that Paul might be modifying his foreign policy stance with an eye toward telling primary voters what they want to hear. Paul’s explanation is simpler. He says that he signed the letter because he wants the best deal possible, not because he is against a deal:

There’s no one in Washington more against war and more for a negotiated deal than I am. But I want the negotiated deal to be a good deal. So my reason for signing onto the letter, I think it reiterates what is the actual law, that Congress will have to undo sanctions. But I also signed onto the letter because I want the president to negotiate from a position of strength which means that he needs to be telling them in Iran that “I’ve got Congress to deal with.”

Paul is less eager than most of his Republican colleagues to spend more on defense. In March he called the defense spending plans that Senators Cruz and Rubio favor “reckless.” Paul argues that more spending on defense must be offset by cuts elsewhere. In all, he says that Americans should be more worried about the country’s national debt than on what it is spending on the Pentagon.

Paul is even more skeptical of foreign aid. He once proposed reducing the federal budget deficit by terminating all foreign aid. That idea went nowhere, but it may come back to haunt him.

His Republican rivals may point out that his proposal included ending aid to Israel, an idea that probably has few fans in the GOP ranks. Paul has since decided that Israel is the one country he would exempt from his proposed aid cuts. He has also worked hard recently to bolster his pro-Israel credentials.

Paul has consistently argued that the Constitution mandates that Congress play a prominent role in foreign policy, especially when it comes to the use of military force.

Last November, he called for Congress to pass a declaration of war against the Islamic State. At first glance, that might seem surprising given his skepticism about the use of U.S. military force abroad. But Paul saw the legislation as a way to restrict what the Obama administration could do.

He would have authorized the use of force for just one year and severely curtailed the White House’s ability to use combat troops. (As anyone familiar with the Flying Fish case knows, Congress has the power to limit how U.S. military forces can be used.)

Might Paul come to rue his staunch defense of Congress’s foreign policy powers should he become president? Perhaps. But if he is more interested in restraining U.S. actions overseas rather than expanding them, as many of his GOP rivals suspect, then occasions for a Paul White House to square off with Capitol Hill over presidential powers might be few and far between.

Paul likewise looks to be consistent in favoring diplomacy over force. He argues:

If you insist on unconditional surrender as a prerequisite to diplomacy, there will be little diplomacy.

Besides favoring diplomacy with Iran, he favors normalizing relations with Cuba. He supports economic sanctions against Russia for its aggression in Ukraine, but he is not looking to bring Ukraine into NATO. He instead cites Henry Kissinger’s advice that Ukraine “should function as a bridge between” Russia and Europe. He proposes to leverage America’s relationship with China “to influence the behavior of North Korea.”

Economic policy

Paul’s positions on the U.S. economy are unsurprising for a Republican. He wants lower taxes, less spending and fewer regulations. He believes in the power of free trade and open markets.

So he supports international trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. He supports passing the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), though he admits to having qualms about how TPA requires Congress to give up some of its leverage on trade.

In all, Paul will stand out from his GOP rivals on foreign policy. He hopes that on net that difference will win him votes. His rivals are calculating on the opposite happening, and will use his foreign policy views against him. The fact that Paul has edged closer to the Republican mainstream on foreign policy in recent months—one of his first campaign events will take place in front of an aircraft carrier—suggests that he worries that his rivals might be right.

More on Paul

Paul’s 2012 book, Government Bullies: How Everyday Americans Are Being Harassed, Abused, and Imprisoned by the Feds, outlines his view on the federal government. (Hint: He’s not a fan.) If you want more of Paul on Paul, check out his 2011 book, The Tea Party Goes to Washington. The WashingtonPost.com has compiled a short video of “Rand Paul in His Own Words.”

Paul did an interview with Salon in November, discussing his “attempt to broaden his appeal, particularly to non-white and young voters.” He laid out his views on diplomacy in an article in the National Interest. He argued in Time magazine that “We Must Demilitarize the Police” in the wake of the Ferguson protests, setting out views somewhat unconventional for a Republican. Time declared Paul “The Most Interesting Man in Politics” last October.

Paul has received a lot of media coverage over the past few years. The most extensive is the New Yorker’s October 2014 profile, “The Revenge of Rand Paul.” Also worth a read is a Forbes article from last fall, “Who Is Rand Paul?

The New York Times profiled Paul in “Rand Paul’s Mixed Inheritance,” Politico ran “Rand Paul’s Republican Revolution,” and Vogue has “Could Republican Senator Rand Paul Win the White House?

Reason has taken on the question, “Is Rand Paul Becoming Less ‘Libertarian-ish’?The Washington Post offers up “8 Things You Need to Know About Presidential Candidate Rand Paul” and “A Brief Guide to What Rand Paul Actually Believes.”

James M. Lindsay is Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair at the Council on Foreign Relations. Rachael Kauss and Alex Laplaza assisted in the preparation of this post. This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.