By Ruth Marcus
WASHINGTON: Rand Paul is the most intriguing — and for Democrats, perhaps the most frightening — figure in today’s Republican Party. The Kentucky senator, who is more than flirting with a 2016 presidential run, is making a smart play for the millennial generation that was key to President Obama’s twin victories and that his own party has convincingly repelled.
Paul’s unlikely pilgrimage to the progressive precincts of the University of California, Berkeley offered the most convincing evidence so far that he is serious about carving out this (sorry, President Clinton) third way space — and a demonstration of his potential appeal to this lost demographic, more attuned to personality than party.
Watch the video of Paul at Berkeley the other day, and you think: This guy doesn’t even look like a Republican, with his jeans and cowboy boots, his tie-but-no-jacket look, his mop-in-need-of-cutting coiffure. Mitt Romney tried to rock those jeans, but no 20-something — no 30-something, actually — looked at his Brylcreemed hair and thought: I want to hang out with this guy.
More important, listen to the substance, and it is difficult to detect much Republican in Paul’s remarks. Indeed, his cross-brand pitch was explicit, and exquisitely attuned to the you’re-not-the-boss-of-me ethos of the younger generation. “Now you may be a Republican or a Democrat or a Libertarian,” Paul began his speech. “I’m not here to tell you what to be.”
With the laconic delivery and soft bluegrass accent that lent a certain stoner quality to his speech, Paul bonded with the Berkeley audience with pretty much the identical message he delivered to the Conservative Political Action Conference the week before, where he won the straw poll.
“If you own a cellphone, you’re under surveillance,” Paul warned. “I believe what you do on your cellphone is none of their damn business,” waving his and winning applause.
But Paul did not stop there. He compared Edward Snowden to Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr., and found Snowden’s desire to escape draconian punishment for his civil disobedience reasonable; he compared Snowden to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and found the latter wanting.
“Clapper lied in the name of security, Snowden told the truth in the name of privacy,” Paul said, adding that the intelligence director “should be tried for perjury.”
Most important, Paul’s theory of broadening his party’s appeal beyond its old white-guy base is not limited to issues of privacy. “Remember, Domino’s finally admitted they had bad crust?” he asked. “Republican Party, admit it: OK, bad crust. We need a different kind of party.”
One example: expressing fear about indefinite detention of U.S citizens in ways that resonate beyond a libertarian audience. “If you’re African-American, Japanese-American, Jewish American, Hispanic, have there ever been times when the government didn’t treat you fairly?” said Paul, who has proposed lower mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and restoring voting rights for nonviolent felons. “Have there ever been times when you said, ‘You know what? The war on drugs has had a racial outcome, three out of four people in prison are brown or black — so something’s gone wrong?’
“Maybe a candidate who would stand up and say everybody deserves their day in court, the law should not have a racial outcome — maybe then people would say, ‘You know what? I always hated those Republicans and their crust sucks, but maybe there’s some new Republicans.’ ”
Navigating his way through a Republican primary whose voters may not appreciate his isolationist tendencies or anti-establishment stance won’t be easy for Paul. Then there is the reality that other of his positions are certain to alienate key Democratic constituencies — for example, opposition to gun control or Scrooge-like insistence that extended unemployment benefits do a “disservice” to the jobless. He told Texas Republicans last month that the GOP needs to be “a welcoming party,” but voted against the Senate immigration bill.
Paul isn’t alone in understanding the GOP’s Domino’s problem. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus gets that the crust is soggy — the GOP’s post-2012 self-autopsy said as much — but hasn’t been able to change it.
Instead, Priebus has been reduced to running an ad campaign featuring a hipster millennial, an African-American runner and a student-debt-laden barista spouting platitudes like, “I don’t need anyone to guarantee my success but I don’t think politicians should get in the way of my future.” Seriously, that’s the solution?
Rand Paul at least has a theory about how to fix the crust. He’s operating the most interesting test kitchen in town.
Marcus is a Washington Post columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.