The Beltway Party, Left and Right, vs. Rand Paul
In case you hadn’t noticed, the DC political class is lining up against U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY). Indeed, the left and right wings of what might be called the Beltway Party have jointly decided that Paul is unacceptable: He and his liberty-minded, live-and-let-live constitutionalist views are a threat to both of those wings.
That is, the establishment left fears Paul because he is an enemy of big government, and the establishment right fears Paul because he is an enemy of their big government--their big government, that is, of social-issue regulation, surveillance, and foreign wars.
Together, the big-government left and the big-government right have gotten us to exactly where we are today; America in 2014 is the sum total of their combined effort. We tax a lot, we spend a lot, we spy a lot, and we intervene a lot. From Obamacare to the Iraq War, we can see the handiwork of our governing class, from its left and right lobes.
Yet while the policies have failed, the policymakers themselves have done pretty well: After all, they get to live in DC, working in and out of the government, pushing paper up and down Pennsylvania Avenue—or K Street. From their narrow personal point of view, the failures of the country can lead to their own continuing success.
But of course, the Big Government Left and the Big Government Right must always be ready to defend their perches of power. Because someone like Rand Paul could spoil the seemingly permanent tax-funded party--for both of them.
So the right and left are teaming up to take Paul down. A case in point is an anti-Paul article appearing in Politico, the liberal-leaning DC diary for powercrats. Yet interestingly, the piece was written by one Kevin Williamson, a staffer for National Review. In other words, a liberal publication found a conservative to trash Paul--pretty clever.
And once the Williamson Politico piece was published, other portals gleefully picked it up; The Huffington Post, for example, ran the story on its front page.
And of course, the Beltway Left and the Beltway Right can always agree on one element of DC style--the power of snark. Hence the headline of Williamson’s Politico piece reads, “Ready for Rand? Americans hate Rand Paul’s libertarianism. They just don’t know it yet.”
Hate libertarianism? Wow. That’s a bold statement to make when the pillars of our government are in such obvious disrepute. According to ABC News, the Democrats’ approval rating is a paltry 34 percent, and the Republicans’ rating is even lower, 25 percent.
According to Gallup, a solid majority of Americans disapprove of President Obama’s job performance. And according to RealClearPolitics, Congress’ approval rating is a fractional 10.8 percent. And the polls on “right track/wrong direction” for the country as a whole are even more lopsided--thumbs down.
From the condition of the economy, to the condition of our privacy, to the condition of our foreign policy, Americans are recoiling at what their government is doing. Meanwhile, at the grassroots, people are taking things into their own hands; the government is being pushed out of both the marriage-regulating business and also the marijuana-regulating business.
Paul has not been on board with every one of these movements, but his overall stance against government overreach is plain enough: He’s the anti-government guy, and everyone knows it.
Maybe that’s why he is doing well in the polls.
Looking ahead to the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Paul is leading the GOP pack, albeit with only small numbers. But still, leading is better than trailing.
Ah, but what about the general election? If Politico and Williamson are correct, and the voters “hate” Paul’s libertarianism, then he’d be a dead duck in November 2016, right?
In fact, Paul runs behind, but not badly. The most recent RealClearPolitics presidential poll finding, from March 14, shows Hillary Clinton beating Paul by five points. For purposes of comparison, Hillary leads Jeb Bush by three points and Mike Huckabee by seven points--so Paul is right in the middle. So yes, Paul is down, but there’s no evidence, here, that the voters “hate” Paul.
Indeed, the GOP doesn’t look too bad in 2016. Do the Democrats really want to nominate Hillary “Russian Re-set” Clinton in 2016? Is she really the best they have?
Of course, Hillary might win by process of elimination. If she finds herself up against Jeb Bush, for example, she could look pretty good to swing voters; as Breitbart News has pointed out, a full 50 percent of the voters say that they would definitely not for Bush in ’16. In other words, Hillary could be unpopular as hell, and yet still win, because Jeb--burdened with all that Bush baggage--is even more unpopular.
So yeah, Paul could really be the 45th President.
Still, it’s worth pausing over some of the substance of Williamson’s attack piece, because he does raise some points that voters will be sure to raise.
Williamson cites Paul’s position on key issues, then contrasts that with public attitudes. The voters, Williamson says, “like Social Security and minimum-wage hikes… Solid majorities of Americans oppose cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits and [favor] raising taxes to pay for them.” Williamson is correct on Social Security, Medicare, and the minimum wage, as well as other programs that Paul wants to cut.
In other words, Paul benefits from a general disdain for government, but his message could falter if he gets stuck on specifics. Writes Williamson,
Fiscal conservatives might applaud Rand Paul when he talks about getting Afghan President Hamid Karzai off of welfare, but they’ll scream if he comes within five miles of their Social Security checks. Any candidate who’s serious about fiscal reform is going to be a hard sell in 2016—or any other year.
Once again, Williamson is right: A fiscal reform agenda is going to be a hard sell in any year.
Indeed, such a fiscal message was also a hard sell in 1980--but Ronald Reagan made it. The public supported Social Security in the late 70s, too, by about the same margins as today, and, then as now, Americans supported a tax increase over benefit cuts.
In fact, in the 1980 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter campaigned hard against Reagan on the issue of protecting entitlement spending--although Reagan proved to be effective in brushing Carter back. In their single presidential debate, October 28, 1980, it was Carter’s attack on Reagan’s Medicare position that led Reagan to respond with his famous riposte, “There you go again.”
Reagan’s words worked, because the voters had simply had enough of Carter. It was, as they said, time for a change. And change came in November, when Reagan won 41 states and 489 electoral votes.
And so today, nine presidential elections later: Do the voters still have their doubts--even their deep hostility--to some of Paul’s fiscal plans? Yes, absolutely.
Yet as we have seen, Reagan won in ’80. The lesson is clear: When conditions get bad enough, it’s time to throw the bums out.
In our time, the Beltway, in the form of Politico, Williamson, The Huffington Post, and all the rest, will continue to make their case against Paul. They will go after him on every issue, and go hard. And that’s why Paul still must be regarded as an underdog.
Yet sometimes, the harder they come, the harder they fall. As we have seen, the real grudge that the Beltway has against Paul is that he is a repudiation of them, and everything they stand for.
And so if the voters come to see that Paul is their champion against Them, then, like Reagan before him, he could win in a landslide.
So perhaps we should stop there. But we can add this coda, based on the Reagan experience.
Yes, Reagan won big in 1980, but he did not win a mandate for the big domestic cuts that he had talked about. For openers, despite suffering losses, the Democrats held the House in 1980, and during 1981 they held the line against Reagan’s proposed deep cuts.
And as for the Senate, yes, the GOP gained control of that chamber in the ’80 elections, but even so, Reagan was ineffective in his quest for deep cuts; in October 1981, the Republicans leadership joined in a 95:0 vote rejecting Reagan's proposed Social Security cuts.
By 1982, Reagan’s power to make any spending cuts was at and end; indeed, in ’82, the President himself pushed for small tax increases. That same year, the Democrats won big in the midterm elections, confirming their anti-Reagan stance.
Yet just two years after that, in 1984, Reagan won a thunderous 49-state re-election victory.
So we can see: The voters wanted Reagan in the White House, proposing cuts. And they wanted Democrats in Congress, opposing cuts. The result was mutual frustration, which became known as gridlock, and that’s been the dominant feature of DC politics ever since.
Still, Reagan was our 40th President for eight years, and despite opposition on Capitol Hill, he wielded enormous influence. The nation and the world changed, for the better, thanks to the Gipper’s leadership. The era of Jimmy Carter was gone forever, and that of Walter Mondale, too.
Of course, the Beltway always has its loyalists, people who think dysfunction is just fine, so long as they are in charge. Those Beltway Loyalists strongly opposed Reagan then, and they strongly oppose Paul now.
We will hear a lot more from these Beltway Loyalists in the years to come. But of course, the voters, too, will get a say.