Potential 2016 presidential candidate Rand Paul took his pitch to the technology community on Saturday, arguing that the free-market solutions flowing out of Silicon Valley are proof of the good that can happen when government gets out of the way.
"I have nothing but optimism when I'm out here because I see amazing potential for growth away from the disaster that is Washington. I don't have to think there has to be a governmental solution for everything," the Kentucky senator told hundreds of people gathered in a hotel ballroom here. "… Don't be depressed with how bad government is. Use your ingenuity, use your big head to think of solutions the marketplace can figure out, that the idiots and trolls in Washington will never come up with."
Paul was speaking at the inaugural Lincoln Labs Reboot conference, a multi-day effort to link conservative and libertarian techies with GOP political operatives and help Republicans break their digital disadvantage in recent presidential campaigns.
Paul is the event's most prominent speaker. On Friday, he spoke at Mozilla on a panel about privacy and raised money for his 2016 Senate reelection fund and his political action committee at a fundraiser hosted by technology executives and venture capitalists. Attendees paid up to $10,000 each to attend the event at a swanky steakhouse on the Embarcadero with a view of the Bay Bridge.
In voter registration and political donations, Silicon Valley is deeply Democratic, one of the factors that many believe helped President Obama's campaign build vastly superior technology that identified and pushed critical groups of voters to the polls, and helped it raise vast sums of money.
Paul acknowledged Democrats' deep advantage in the region but questioned the logic of it.
"I come out here and people say, 'We loved President Obama, you know. We're all for President Obama. We're from the tech community,' " Paul said. "Why? Why would you be? He's not for innovation. He's not for freedom. He's for the protectionism crowd. You know he's for the crowd that would limit the activities of these companies."
In the sea of blue, there is a libertarian streak in Silicon Valley that Paul would need to tap if he decides to run for the White House in 2016, for both technical support and cash. His skepticism of the government, which prompted him to lead the charge on the NSA spying scandal, makes him a natural fit for libertarians in the area, who were deeply supportive of Paul's father – former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
The elder Paul's innovative use of online tools – for "money bombs" and connecting his die-hard supporters – were vital boosts to his ultimately unsuccessful presidential bids. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel gave $2.6 million to a super PAC supporting his 2012 presidential campaign; Thiel's protege, venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale, appeared with the younger Paul at a Saturday panel on privacy at the convention – a signal of the community Paul is building here as he mulls his own bid.
During that event, the senator pointed to past government wrongdoing to explain why he believes the spying scandal is so important.
"People say, 'Oh well, the NSA hasn't done anything wrong, or the president says we haven't abused the privilege at all.' It really isn't about what's been done, but what could be done," Paul said. "It also is about what has been done in the past. During the Civil Rights era, as well as the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands of people were spied upon… "
"I think people, most of the people who work for government actually have good motives. They're trying to stop terrorists, like we should have the government try to stop terrorists," he continued. "But the potential for abuse, unless we obey the law, is out there. There have been historical examples of it. And there's ways to get the information properly."
Paul did not mention his conservative positions on social issues, which would cause him problems in Silicon Valley, or foreign policy beliefs that have been drawing fire as isolationist from fellow Republicans, most recently Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Instead, he focused part of his speech on education reform, an issue dear to the Valley, to tout the ways that technology can be used to improve how children learn.
"What's going to happen, whether the government likes it or not, there's going to be a revolution," Paul said. "And there already is this revolution occurring and I think we're seeing the tip of the iceberg."