It came as no surprise to anyone who had been paying attention that Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul won the presidential straw poll at last weekend’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington, D.C. The CPAC crowd is dominated by younger male conservatives, the constituency who flocked to the doomed presidential campaign of Paul’s father, now-retired Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
But the speech that Paul gave on the afternoon of second day should really be heard by all Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike.
Paul can be as noxious a partisan as any -- as when he invoked the extra-marital dalliances of Bill Clinton to impugn the presidential prospects of Hillary Clinton -- but there was something about his CPAC speech that distinguished it from those delivered by the other potential 2016 Republican presidential aspirants: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
For the most part, they delivered perfectly good stump-style speeches with predictable conservative themes:
Obama is a weak president.
Obamacare kills jobs and must be repealed.
There is no such thing as “income inequality,” only “opportunity inequality.”
The poor need a “hand up,” not a “handout.”
Only lower taxes and deregulation will turn the economy around.
Ronald Reagan was great.
Washington is corrupt.
Paul’s speech was different.
He didn’t talk about Obamacare, he didn’t invoke the sainted name of Reagan. He didn’t harp on his differences with Republican hawks about ill-fated American military adventures. He alluded only in passing to “a jobless recovery, an alarming debt, a bothersome and abusive regulatory state.”
What he talked about was liberty -- and not in that rote, meaningless way so many Republicans do when they want to fire up a supportive crowd with empty buzzwords.
His speech was a very specific indictment of what he sees as three particular constitutional violations that have occurred on the watch of President Obama: the mass collection of data by the National Security Agency, Obama’s decision to sign legislation that allows the indefinite detention of American citizens without trial and Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board when the Senate did not consider itself to be in recess, now under Supreme Court review.
“Imagine a time when the White House is once again occupied by a friend of liberty,” Paul said. “And you may think I’m talking about electing Republicans. I’m not.”
While other featured speakers delivered their speeches to a half-full hotel ballroom, Paul filled the house to overflowing and received numerous ovations. His biggest applause line: “If you have a cellphone, you are under surveillance. I believe what you do on your cellphone is none of their damn business!”
Paul’s speech comes at a time when liberals and conservatives alike are increasingly concerned about the imperial tendencies of American presidents.
The recent congressional testimony of Jonathan Turley, a law professor and civil libertarian who has been generally supportive of Obama, raised alarms about “the rise of an uber presidency unchecked by the other two branches” and was noted by several CPAC speakers.
Turley expanded on his testimony on Sunday, in an opinion essay in the Los Angeles Times.
He did not cite the examples that stirred Paul, but focused on what he described as other troubling acts by the president: unilateral changes made in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the implementation by executive order of the Dream Act, the nullification by waivers of the No Child Left Behind Act, and Atty. Gen. Eric Holder’s refusal to prosecute non-violent drug offenders who would be subjected to mandatory minimum sentences enacted by Congress.
Paul also is willing to make analogies you don’t often hear from Republican establishment types: “Our forefathers fought for the right to trial by jury so that not one innocent man would be imprisoned,” he told CPAC. “Remember Richard Jewell? Everybody thought he was the Olympic bomber. … Had he been a black man in the South in 1920, he might not have lived to prove his innocence.”
Not that Paul is above partisan inanity. Invoking “Jim Crow,” “ the Japanese internment” and “today’s indefinite detention without trial,” Paul said that “Progressives believe that a majority may separate you from your rights.” That conveniently ignores his position that it’s perfectly legal for the majority to deny gay couples the right to marry. Last week, he expressed outrage after the Kentucky attorney general said he would not enforce his state’s gay marriage ban.
And today, he published a muddled piece of thinking about Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Time's website, insisting he would not let Vladimir Putin "get away with it" but urged the U.S. to suspend loans and aid to Ukraine, because that would have the "counterproductive effect of rewarding Russia." ("America is a world leader," he wrote, "but we should not be its policeman or its ATM.")
Paul did all Americans a favor when he filibustered against John Brennan’s nomination for CIA director last March, insisting that Holder answer in writing whether it is constitutional for American citizens suspected of terrorist activity to be killed by drones on American soil. (It is not.) And last month, he joined a class action suit against the president and the NSA over the bulk collection of data.
Am I sorry his presidential prospects are probably as dim as his father’s? No. But I give him credit for the things he’s done right.
Twitter: @robinabcarianCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times