Is Rand Paul Still a Libertarian?

Tea Party firebrand Rand Paul has been unwavering in his advocacy of small government. But his stances in foreign policy in military spending are quickly changing. TRNN’s Thomas Hedges spoke to journalist and editor of the libertarian Reason.com news outlet Nick Gillespie about whether or not Paul can remain true to his libertarian word.

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Story Transcript

THOMAS HEDGES, PRODUCER, TRNN: Rand Paul is calling himself a non-establishment candidate. In his announcement last week that he would run for president, the Kentucky Senator told a crowd of supporters that he would fight big government.

RAND PAUL, U.S. SENATOR (R-KY): When Republicans have won, we’ve squandered our victory by becoming part of the Washington machine. That’s not who I am.

HEDGES: For libertarians, Paul is maybe the only Republican candidate who represents a truly independent voice, but lately that quality has come into question. Paul, who branded himself in the 2010 Tea Party wave as a non-interventionist has ramped up the language of war. He’s been vocal about addressing the dangers of the Islamic State.

PAUL: The enemy is radical Islam. And not only will I name the enemy, I will do whatever it takes to defend America from these haters of mankind.

HEDGES: Earlier this year, Paul also signed on to a letter that Senator Tom Cotton authored denouncing Iran negotiations. He backtracked on statements he made about suspending aid to Israel. And once a strong critic of military spending, Paul now proposes increasing the Pentagon’s budget by almost $200 billion over the course of two years.

That’s a disappointing development for libertarian journalist and editor of Reason.com Nick Gillespie, who says that a more hawkish Republican base shouldn’t stray Rand Paul from his core message.

NICK GILLESPIE, REASON.COM: The real question is whether or not, you know, do we need to be spending over $600 billion a year on defense, especially as we wind down two major wars? The older Rand Paul, the original Rand Paul, would have said no. The newer Rand Paul seems willing to kind of talk through that a little bit more. And that is problematic from a libertarian point of view.

HEDGES: In a Pew poll from last year, researchers found that within a period of just nine months Republican voters had swung back to a much more hawkish position. That change in sentiment is due in large part to the rise of the Islamic State, as well as Russia’s actions in Ukraine. It’s pushed Rand Paul to adopt a more hard-line foreign policy approach.

GILLESPIE: I think that kind of reversion to jingoistic nationalism and militarism should be troubling for all Americans.

Rand Paul says that his reigning principle in foreign policy is first, do no harm. And I think to the extent that he really kind of thinks that through and recovers that sensibility, it will not only set him apart from people like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz who are very much of a kind of neocon bent when it comes to bombing foreign countries and invading them. But it will start the type of conversation that the country really needs.

HEDGES: When Gillespie interviewed Paul a year ago at the Reboot conference in San Francisco the senator criticized the Republican habit of increasing military spending.

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GILLESPIE: Is it going to be hard to untangle the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower and other people warned about?

PAUL: You can’t write unlimited cheques, because you’ll bankrupt the country. So really, I think believing in responsible spending, even for military, is a strong national defense position.

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HEDGES: And in 2008, when Rand Paul’s father Ron Paul was running for president, Paul told The Real News that he and his father had more in common with the progressive Democrat Dennis Kucinich than with any other Republican that supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

PAUL: I think you put all my dad’s supporters in a room with Dennis Kucinich’s supporters, and I think they’d be drinking beer and having a good time. And they’re polar opposites in some ways, but come together on the war.

HEDGES: Paul’s change in stance on defense spending and foreign policy is of course disappointing for Gillespie. But Gillespie also feels that as long as Paul sticks to his other convictions there could be hope for libertarian voters in 2016.

GILLESPIE: This is what makes him interesting, is that he can’t be boxed in to a right-wing or a left-wing position. It appeals to younger voters who are not as loyal to their parents’ party brands, like conservative and liberal, or Republican and Democrat. And I think the real challenge for Rand Paul is to be true to that message rather than thinking he can gain momentary votes by going into a conventional Republican, conservative mindset.

HEDGES: For the Real News, Thomas Hedges, Washington.