Column

Is Rand Paul's opposition to the GOP health bill principled, or cynical?

The greatest trick any politician can pull off is to get his self-interest and his principles in perfect alignment. As Thomas More observed in Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons,” “If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly.”

Which brings me to Sen. Rand Paul, the GOP’s would-be Man for All Seasons. Paul has managed to make his opposition to the GOP’s healthcare bill a matter of high libertarian principle. The fact that the bill is terribly unpopular in his home state of Kentucky — where more than 1 out of 5 Kentuckians are on Medicaid — is apparently just a coincidence.

Indeed, it seems like whenever I turn on the news, he’s explaining why the GOP’s healthcare efforts are disappointing. “Look, this is what we ran on for four elections. Republicans ran four times and won every time on repeal Obamacare,” he told Fox News’ Neil Cavuto, “and now they're going to vote to keep it. Disappointing.”

Principles, meet self-interest.

But is Paul’s idealism really what’s driving him, or is that just a convenient excuse for doing what’s politically expedient? It’s tough to say.

Paul learned politics on the knee of his father, Ron Paul, a longtime Texas congressman and irrepressible presidential candidate. In the House, the elder Paul earned the nickname “Dr. No” because he voted against nearly everything on the grounds that it wasn’t constitutional or libertarian enough. The fusion of cynicism and idealism was so complete, it was impossible to tell where one began and the other ended.

“I’m absolutely for free trade, more so than any other member of the House,” he told National Review’s John Miller in 2007. “But I’m against managed trade.” So he opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and all other trade deals, not on Trumpian protectionist grounds but in service to his higher libertarian conscience which, in a brilliant pas de deux landed him in the protectionist position anyway.

Ron Paul loved earmarks. He’d cram pork for his district in must-pass spending bills like an overstuffed burrito — and then vote against them in the name of purity, often boasting that he never approved an earmark or a spending bill.

In 2006, Republicans proposed legislation to slow the growth of entitlements by $40 billion over five years. Democrats screamed bloody murder about Republican heartlessness and voted against it. So did Ron Paul — on the grounds the reform didn’t go far enough.

Now I can’t say for sure that Rand Paul is carrying on the family tradition.

And yet: Every time healthcare proceedings move one step in Paul’s direction, he seems to move one step back. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas offered an amendment that would open up the market for more flexible and affordable plans, like Paul wants. No good, he told Fox’s Chris Wallace. Those plans are still in the “context” of the Obamacare mandates.

“My idea always was to replace it with freedom, legalize choice, legalize inexpensive insurance, allow people to join associations to buy their insurance.”

Sounds good. Except a provision for exempting associations from Obamacare mandates is already in the bill.

Paul insists he’s sympathetic to the GOP’s plight and its need to avoid a midterm catastrophe. (It would look awful if the party did nothing on healthcare at all.) His solution? Just repeal Obamacare now, and work on a replacement later. “I still think the entire 52 of us can get together on a more narrow, clean repeal,” he told Wallace.

That sounds like a constructive idea, grounded in principle.

Oddly, that’s what the GOP leadership wanted to do back in January.

And one senator more than any other fought to stop them and even lobbied the White House successfully to change course. Guess who?

“If Congress fails to vote on a replacement at the same time as repeal,” Paul wrote, “the repealers risk assuming the blame for the continued unraveling of Obamacare. For mark my words, Obamacare will continue to unravel and wreak havoc for years to come.”

That’s true, particularly, if Paul stays true to his principles.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

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