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Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)

Olivier Douliery, MCT

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) holds an impromptu Q&A with the media outside the ballroom after he spoke at the annual conference of Kentuckians for Better Transportation at the Hyatt Regency's Patterson Ballroom in Lexington, Kentucky, Friday, January 21, 2010. (David Perry/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT)

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Rand Paul seeks to take libertarianism into the mainstream

  • Article by: SAM TANENHAUS and JIM RUTENBERG
  • New York Times
  • January 25, 2014 - 9:57 PM

The libertarian faithful — anti-tax activists and war protesters, John Birch Society members and a smattering of “truthers” who suspect the government’s hand in the 2001 terrorist attacks — gathered last September, eager to see the rising star of their movement.

With top billing on the opening night of the Liberty Political Action Conference, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky told the audience at an airport Marriott in Virginia that a viable Republican Party must reach out to young people and minorities.

But not long after the applause died down, Paul was out the door. He skipped an address by his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, as well as closing remarks by his own former Senate aide, an ex-radio host who had once celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and extolled white pride.

The senator was off to an exclusive resort on Mackinac Island, Mich., where he again talked about the future of the party. But this time he was in the company of Karl Rove and other power brokers, and his audience was Republican stalwarts who were sizing up possible presidential candidates.

‘Credible national candidate’

As Rand Paul tries to broaden his appeal, he is also trying to take libertarianism, an ideology long on the fringes of American politics, into the mainstream. Midway through his freshman term, he has become a prominent voice in Washington’s biggest debates — on government surveillance, spending and Middle East policy.

In the months since he commanded national attention and bipartisan praise for his 13-hour filibuster against the Obama administration’s drone program, Rand Paul has impressed Republican leaders with his staying power, in part because of the stumbles of potential rivals and despite some of his own.

“Sen. Paul is a credible national candidate,” said Mitt Romney, who ran in 2012. In an e-mail, Romney added that the votes and dollars Paul would attract from his father’s supporters could help make him “a serious contender for the Republican nomination.”

But if Paul reaps the benefits of his father’s name and history, he also must contend with the burdens of that patrimony. And as he has become a politician in his own right and now tours the circuit of early primary states, Paul has been calibrating how fully he embraces some libertarian precepts.

“I want to be judged by who I am, not by a relationship,” Paul, a self-described libertarian Republican, said last week. “I have wanted to develop my own way, and my own, I guess, connections to other intellectual movements myself when I came to Washington.”

‘Sense of proportion’

Coming of age in the United States’ first family of libertarianism — he calls his father, a three-time presidential aspirant, “my hero” — Paul was steeped in a narrow, rightward strain of the ideology, according to interviews, documents and a review of speeches, articles and books.

Some of its adherents have formulated provocative theories on race, class and American history. Rand Paul says he abhors racism, and should not have to answer for the more extreme views of all of those in the libertarian orbit.

“If you were to say to someone, ‘Well, you’re a conservative Republican or you are a Christian conservative Republican, does that mean that you think when the earthquake happened in Haiti that was God’s punishment for homosexuality?’ Well, no,” he said in an earlier interview. “It loses its sense of proportion if you have to go through and defend every single person about whom someone says is associated with you.”

Since becoming a national figure, Rand Paul has generally clung to safer ground. His denunciations of government intrusion on Americans’ privacy have been joined by lawmakers in both parties and have resonated with the public. He has renounced many of the isolationist tenets central to libertarianism, backed away from his longstanding objections to parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and teamed with members of the Black Congressional Caucus in calling for easing of drug-sentencing laws.

Paul sometimes muses aloud about his prospects in 2016. “Imagine what a general election would be like it were myself and Hillary Clinton,” he said in an interview. Asserting that the Democrat would be more hawkish than the Republican, he added, “You’d totally turn topsy-turvy the whole political spectrum.”

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