It’s not exactly a hard thing to get applause at CPAC. Lead with “America,” back it up with some “Constitution,” and sprinkle a little liberty on top—the crowd will be on its feet in no time. But for a certain Kentucky senator who took to the stage on Friday afternoon, the mere mention of his name was enough to get the walls shaking.
Senator Rand Paul, who many have looked to as a presidential contender in 2016, spoke to a standing room only audience on familiar topics: NSA spying, the Fourth Amendment, and on-the-fly executive legislating we’ve become so familiar with during the Obamacare rollout.
The time had come, Paul said, for “electing lovers of liberty.”
“It isn’t good enough,” he argued, “to pick the lesser of two evils. We must elect men and women of principle and conviction and action who will lead us back to greatness.”
Paul was careful not to speak ill of the intentions of the current administration’s handling of the NSA’s spying authority. Yet he was sure to cite Daniel Webster, who wrote that “Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority. It is hardly too strong to say that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions.”
The strongest admonition came when Paul invoked the judgment of history—something President Obama and his intimates are often fond of doing. “History,” he said, “will record [Obama’s] timid defense of liberty.”
But while Paul’s speech was full of energy—telling the NSA that what Americans do on their cell phones is “none of your damn business”—there was an odd note to it that stuck out: his invocation of the early 19th century radical abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison.
Urging supporters to action, Paul told the audience to echo sentiments of Garrison: “I am in earnest, I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch — and I will be heard!”
This is not a new thing, by the way. Paul has called Garrison “one of his favorite historical figures” previously. This is the same man who believed the Constitution “a devil’s pact” and burned a copy of it publicly. He was also in favor of northern secession.
Many have admired Paul for his willingness to be more political and tactful than his father in promoting the message of liberty. Working on bipartisan legislation to reform criminal justice laws, making stands on popular issues like NSA opposition, and being confident enough in his message to venture out to places like Howard University—these are all good things that frame Paul has a “big tent” type of politician.
Yet there are moments like these where friends might worry about Paul’s ability to attract a broad audience. In the 21st century, no speech goes unnoticed; and his repeated use of a radical secessionist could come back to haunt him politically. This is especially worrisome given how often libertarian types are unfairly linked to neo-confederate beliefs—something is already close to home for the Paul camp.