This week, I had the opportunity to speak to a man who belongs to perhaps the most singular class of politico: the honest one. A man who has the courage of his convictions, who does not allow himself to be browbeaten into discarding his long-held positions because they may be politically incorrect. Say what you want about Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. There is no denying that he is arguably Congress’ most candid member. An unabashed libertarian, Paul has been serving in the Senate for just over two years, but he has distinguished himself as a man who is not intimidated by political pressure, be it from the left flank or the right. He will stand up for what he believes, popular or otherwise.
Fresh from a trip to Israel and the Middle East organized by various Jewish figures involved in Republican politics, The Senator got a firsthand look at the tiny country, its people and its challenges.
“It was a wonderful trip,” he told the Yated in a wide-ranging interview. “My wife and kids came along with me and we really enjoyed it. We spent a Friday night Shabbat meal with several friends from the Jewish community and it was a wonderful experience. I’ve been a part of other traditional Jewish services and ceremonies before, but nothing quite as elaborate as this one, which was expertly coordinated by my good friend, Dr. Rich Roberts.”
Although Kentucky is not known to be a Jewish bastion, Mr. Paul has been active in reaching out to members of the Jewish community.
“We had a meeting last week with various Jewish federations. I have tried to take an interest in the concerns of the Jewish people. There are lots of Christians who are also very interested in our relationship with Israel. I am aware of that.”
The main purpose of the trip, the Senator said, was to get an up-close view of the troubled region and meet with leaders to learn how the U.S. can help change things for the better. The delegation met with multiple high-ranking officials in the Israeli government, including Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. The group also spent time in Jordan with King Abdullah and in the Palestinian territories where they visited with President Mahmoud Abbas.
After studying the situation for a week, what does the Senator think he’s learned? Typically, his answer is direct.
“I don’t have the ultimate answer,” he says. “There’s a reason that no one has been able to come up with that solution for so many years now. I have a better appreciation for how close together everything is, the proximity between the people over there. Basically, there’s a mountain range, a valley, and that’s it, you’ve reached the border! So that makes the issues even more challenging. I do think, though, that the way to deal with the issues there – just like in our country – would be incrementally. We spend lots of time looking for a big solution, when sometimes it’s best to deal with it slowly.”
The Senator has several examples in mind.
“While I was on the tour bus, we passed various towns and villages. It got me thinking that it would make life easier for the Palestinians if a bus would stop in some of their towns, like Bethlehem and Jericho. One of the things Abbas complained about is the restriction of trade with Gaza. I think if trade would be more open, both Israel and the Palestinian areas would be more prosperous and this would make fighting less likely. Obviously, there needs to be proper security considerations for this to happen and the Israelis need to determine that it is feasible.”
The caveat is quick to come, and it is strictly libertarian.
“I would like to point out that I strongly believe that these types of decisions have to be made by the people who live there, not by someone from Bowling Green, Kentucky. It’s not for me to tell the Israelis and Palestinians how to work out their differences. It’s the same with the settlements in the area. I think it’s arrogant and presumptuous for members of the Obama administration to be talking about ‘67 borders and to be telling the mayor of Jerusalem or the prime minister where he is allowed to build apartments. This is consistent with my belief that not everything is America’s business and the decisions should be made by those involved.”
Libertarianism, a political philosophy that advocates minimal governmental intervention in the lives of the citizenry, is often confused with isolationism, the belief that America must be completely uninvolved in global affairs, be it economically or militarily. While Senator Paul has campaigned for less involvement with foreign countries’ problems, he has not fallen into the trap of being associated with the radical fringe isolationists, whose theories have been disproven time and time again. In fact, in a recent interview with a conservative media outlet, Mr. Paul issued a strong statement backing military protection for Israel in case of an attack by one of its enemies: “What I think we should do is announce to the world – and I think it is pretty well known – that any attack on Israel will be treated as an attack on the United States.”
Senator Paul has been a fierce critic of the Obama administration on both the domestic and foreign fronts, fearing that the policies they’ve espoused are leading America down the path of decline. Our interview took place shortly after confirmation hearings for Senator John Kerry, President Obama’s pick to head the State Department and replace Hillary Clinton, who served in that role since 2009. When I mentioned the president’s decision to send F-16 fighter jets to the Muslim Brotherhood-run country of Egypt, Senator Paul, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, hearkened back to that hearing.
“I am adamantly opposed to that decision and I questioned Kerry about that strenuously. In no way should the United States be supplying this sort of weaponry to a country whose president calls Jews the descendants of apes and pigs. We shouldn’t be supplying weapons to a country where there are constantly mass riots. These people can’t be trusted. This is aside from the fact that I feel like this sort of move just feeds an arms race. When Egypt gets these types of weapons, Israel feels like they need them too.”
Mr. Paul’s tone was even more strident the day before, when he got a chance to question the current secretary of state about her role in the massive security failure that led up to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11. Four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens were killed in the attack. While Mrs. Clinton tried to defend her actions before and after the event, the junior Senator from Kentucky was having none of it.
“I have to tell you, if I was the president at the time, I would have relieved you of your duties,” he lectured. When questioned as to why he took such a strong stand, the senator did not back down.
“There were terrible mistakes made in Benghazi – inexcusable mistakes,” the Senator explained to the Yated. “The Ambassador sent cables, begging and pleading for more security. The chief of security in Benghazi, Colonel Tyrone Wood, requested permission to stay on to protect the people there and his request was denied. You have to realize that Libya is the hottest of hotspots. For the secretary to come before us and say that she didn’t read those cables begging for help, that’s just unacceptable. I happen to believe that when the United States goes into a country like Libya, a war-torn country, or one just coming out of a war, the State Department should not be in charge of security. That job should be under the auspices of the Defense Department or the military, people who are involved in such work constantly. The State Department is fine for security in Aruba, Paris or London, not Benghazi. Unfortunately, this incident illustrated that point.”
This failure, he feels, is the defining incident of Clinton’s tenure in Foggy Bottom.
“It clouds anything she may have done there over the last four years,” he says.
Going a step further, Paul makes a thinly veiled reference to Mrs. Clinton’s much discussed presidential ambitions.
“I don’t think she can be trusted to hold any position where she will be responsible for the security of so many lives. Her failure in this instance disqualifies her. This was a telling moment.”
Does he think Mrs. Clinton and the administration are getting a pass from Congress and the media on this issue? His response is nuanced.
“I think that people got distracted by the movie issue [when officials in the Obama administration said that the killings stemmed from a protest over an anti-Muslim film]. Because of the misdirection at the time, the administration’s explanation became the whole story, overshadowing what I feel is the real issue, and that’s the utter failure in securing our people in a dangerous neighborhood.”
Reelected in November, President Obama has interpreted the country’s decision as an approval of his policies, both fiscal and social. As a result, he has gone hard after Republicans, backing them against the wall during fiscal cliff negotiations, promoting tough new gun restrictions and proposing a deeply liberal agenda for the coming four years. This aggressive push culminated in an inaugural address so partisan that it has been called a liberal manifesto by leading commentators.
The reaction by Republicans to the president’s offensive has been disappointing to their supporters. Cowed by fears of blowback from the public, they caved on tax hikes for the wealthy, allowed additional spending to be attached to the bill, and have been largely silent in defense of the Second Amendment.
Senator Paul has been a lone voice in the wilderness, as he has been many times during his career. He was just one of five Republicans in the Senate who took a stand and voted no on the fiscal cliff deal, he’s defended Americans’ right to bear arms, and he has decried the president’s combative posture and attitude going into his second term, vowing to not allow the United States be ruled by a “king.” Does he feel isolated? Does he think that his party has lost its way and that he is the only one left in the opposition?
“I think we can do better. Let me put it this way: When I’m out there talking to constituents in Kentucky or elsewhere, I get a lot of positive feedback for the positions I’ve taken. They’re proud of me for standing up for fiscal sanity, for discouraging tax hikes. People are not in favor of higher taxes. You might get blowback here in Washington, but across the country people want us to quit borrowing and spending so much. That’s why I voted against that deal struck in Congress. It’s not right for America. So we really have to articulate our positions better, because the nation is behind it.”
Is there any hope for fiscal responsibility going forward? The fiscal cliff is behind us, but there are budget battles looming on the horizon. Does he see anything getting done?
“Well, the debt ceiling debate will be pushed off until spring, because the House has already passed a bill moving the limit up and the Senate is sure to concur. But when that time comes, I will be firm in my position that the only way forward is to stop profligate spending. We don’t need new taxes. I will not back a plan proposed by some Democrats that ties a deal to tax increases. Absolutely not.”
Over the long term, the Senator believes that the only way to keep the country sound financially is to pass a balanced budget amendment, which would constitutionally mandate that the Treasury must take in more money than it is giving out.
“The American people know that Washington politicians are not good with their money. They don’t adhere to their own rules, constantly looking for ways out of their commitments. There was a deal passed that forced sequestration to go into effect with automatic budget cuts. Now they’re seeking a way around that too. The only way to ensure that they do their job is to force their hand through an amendment.”
After the Sandy Hook school shooting, liberals and President Obama were quick to use the event as a springboard for new gun legislation, appointing commissions and issuing executive orders that would impose new rules without the benefit of a legislative process. The entire process, or lack thereof, smacks of political opportunism, just pushing a liberal agenda and not a genuine attempt to prevent further calamity.
In an earlier interview with the Yated, Senator Paul condemned the use of a tragedy to make a political point, but he feels that the progressive agenda is more misguided than malice.
“Many of the people who are proposing these new restrictions just don’t see the purpose of gun ownership. If you remember back in 2008, the president made disparaging remarks about ‘those who cling to their guns and religion.’ I grew up in the South [in Texas], where it was not uncommon for people to have shotguns in their cars and trucks. Despite that, as a kid, I never heard of humans being shot. Guns were for self-defense and hunting. These people grew up in places where they didn’t appreciate the need for self-defense. Personally, I don’t think these new restrictions will pass and I’m hopeful that anything the president tries to impose by fiat will be struck down in the courts. In 1997, former President Clinton tried to issue executive orders with regard to gun laws and the courts ruled that they were unconstitutional, that he was trying to legislate from the Oval Office. So there is precedent for it.”
As Republicans lick their wounds following their beating in November, the party has looked for direction as well as new leaders who can convey their message more effectively. Senator Paul has been mentioned time and time again as a potential candidate for president in 2016 and he hasn’t actively dispelled that notion. He does feel, though, that it is too early to make such commitments.
“On an individual level, it’s still premature to be talking about running for president,” he says. “Right now, I’m trying to be part of the national conversation on all the issues. I sit on several important committees and I’m trying to learn about lots of different matters important to our country. I’m a physician and I’m trained to look at the whole picture when assessing a problem. That’s what I’m trying to do here as well. Going forward, I think it’s vital that the Republican party learn to reach out to different ethnic groups. We’ve done poorly with Hispanics, terribly with African-Americans, and not well enough with Asians. Frankly, things haven’t been great with the Jewish community either! That has to change. We are a diverse country, and if we don’t want to be a permanent minority, we must learn how to make our message resonate with everyone.”
When you head into the voting booth and pull that lever, you don’t really know what the consequences of that action may be. Events and circumstances change and political winds along with it. If you ever do cast a ballot for Rand Paul, at least you know that you’ll get the truth.