Rand Paul’s party of one
Sen. Rand Paul is the only member of Congress who has entertained not just one, but every single one of the following ideas: Requiring a $2,000 deductible for Medicare plans, raising the age at which Americans can receive Social Security, drastically cutting military spending, eliminating foreign aid to Israel and the rest of the Middle East, and weaning poor Americans off “intergenerational welfare,” more commonly known as Medicaid.
Nevertheless, he is unhappy with House Republicans’ attempt to cut first $100 billion, now only slightly more than $60 billion, from the budget. Quite simply, these cuts are not enough.
“Here’s the thing that’s most troubling,” Paul told me in a phone interview. “Even if these House freshmen get $100 billion in cuts, we’re talking about changing the annual deficit from $1.65 trillion, to $1.55 trillion.”
“So really, you’re talking about still adding trillions in debt every year.”
The math behind that is that government spending is currently $3.8 trillion and revenues are only $2.2 trillion.
This kind of thinking makes Paul the most radical man in a party that is trying and failing, for reasons both within and beyond its control, to make good on the essential promise it has made to its base. Paul’s only mission is to help the GOP learn to do something it hasn’t ever really been good at: Reduce the size and scope of government.
“My purpose is to drive Republicans to be more bold,” Paul said. “Most of them want to wait and see what the president has to offer and make it a bipartisan solution so that you get more political cover.”
Paul would rather have Pres. Obama come to the GOP, “so that way, if the president does come around to our thinking, he has to meet us somewhere in the middle, and our solution becomes the talked-about solution.”
A “talked-about” solution Paul proposed before he announced his run for Senate nearly sank his campaign.
“Medicare is socialized medicine!” Paul said at a Kentucky event hosted by the Center-Right Coalition in the summer of 2009. “We can’t just eliminate Medicare, but we have to get more to a market-based system. It’s counter-intuitive to a lot of people, but you have to pay for things if you want prices to come down. So you really need higher deductibles. And the real answer to Medicare would be a $2,000 deductible.”
Paul’s theoretical proposal, which was captured on camera and is available in full on Youtube, provided Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway with fodder for a devastating campaign ad: More than a minute of real live senior citizens reacting to footage of Paul calling for a $2,000 Medicare deductible with real live horror and disgust.
Paul’s team slammed Conway for taking the line out of context, but the damage was done. Paul’s zeal for radically reforming entitlements was out of the bag. Had Conway not followed this effort with the infamously tin-eared “Aqua Buddha” ad, Paul might still be checking for cataracts in Bowling Green.
The Rand Paul making the rounds now is a little more cautious.
“I try to emphasize that this isn’t me wanting to punish those people, or punish us,” Paul told me. “The facts as they are is that with all the baby boomers retiring and less workers, there’s not enough money for the entitlement programs.”
Instead, Paul saves the punishing talk for his colleagues.
“Who are our heroes?” he asked during a floor speech (his first) in early February. “Are we fascinated and enthralled by the Great Compromiser [Henry Clay] or his cousin Cassius Clay?” Paul had just finished describing the night Cassius Clay, a Kentucky abolitionist, was stabbed and beaten nearly to death by a pro-slavery family. When a pistol wielded by one of his attackers failed to fire, Clay snatched a knife and drove it into the would-be shooter’s stomach.
The focus of the address wasn’t slavery, or even Civil Rights. The story of Cassius and Henry was instead a tool for illustrating the GOP’s reluctance to tackle entitlement reform.
“Any compromise should be about where we cut federal spending, not where we raise taxes,” Paul said. “The compromise must be conservatives acknowledging that we can cut military spending and liberals acknowledging that we can cut domestic spending.”
It was a graphic anecdote to share on the Senate floor. Disorienting, even, for having come from a man who had criticized the 1964 Civil Rights Act on TV just a few months earlier.
It was also an exceptional thing to say, because Paul used it not to shame Democrats, but to send a message to Republican leadership in the Senate. Would they risk life and limb to shrink the deficit? Or would they cave on their principles in order to avoid a war of opinion, one that many in the GOP believe cannot be won if fought to Paul’s liking?
Just a month after scolding his party on the Senate floor, Paul denied the reports of friction between himself and the senior members of his caucus.
“I’ve gotten feedback from people who may not agree with my timetable, or with how bold or how much the cuts should be,” Paul told TheDC, “but nobody has said, ‘We think you need to be quiet.’”
The truth is that Senate Republicans couldn’t silence Paul if they wanted to. He is forever proselytizing to anyone who will listen about the impending disintegration of the American Way of Life. When The Daily Caller spoke to Paul in late February, he was in Manhattan signing copies of his book, “The Tea Party Goes to Washington,” the cover of which features a belt cinched around the cupola of the Capitol Building. Earlier that day, he appeared on “Good Morning America” with George Stephanopoulos.
Paul also differs from his Republican colleagues in his approach to getting out the fiscal Gospel. For instance, he sees no venue or show as too hostile. In early February, Paul shared his grand plan for reducing the deficit with Gwen Ifill of PBS, who in 2009, nonchalantly deployed the term “teabaggers” during a Newshour special. Just this week, Paul appeared on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart, where he scolded not just Obama for the $800 billion stimulus, but also Pres. George Bush and congressional Republicans for doubling military spending since 2001.
Strafing all sides is a key pillar of Paul’s philosophy of boldness.
“Some politicians think if you’re really bold you’ll set yourself up for political disaster,” he told TheDC. “They used to say that entitlement reform is the third rail in politics, you couldn’t talk about it and still get elected. I disagree with that now. Young people have already built it into their plans that Social Security is struggling and will have to be reformed, and that likely they won’t get it at the same age that people have gotten it.”
Under the guise of boldness, Paul will push for the same reforms that nearly killed his campaign for Senate. “People who have means are going to have pay the full price of Medicare in order to keep it solvent,” he told me, adding, “There aren’t that many Republicans who agree with my approach on this.”
If Paul cannot rally members of his caucus under the flag of boldness, he says he will “probably” release his ideas independently.
“We’ll just have to see what happens and who signs onto it. As you can see with my $500 billion in cuts, we’re not afraid to move ahead and have our own policy discussion and decision out there.”
Or rather, Paul is not afraid to let it all hang out.