Rand Paul at CPAC 2013: "For liberty to expand, government must shrink."

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) knew he wouldn’t have trouble filling up a 20-minute speech, but he brought the transcript of his epic 13-hour filibuster along, just in case.  In the prop-comedy battle between leading GOP presidential contenders, it’s a tough call between Paul’s filibuster book and Senator Marco Rubio’s water glasses.  Paul definitely had better intro music, though.

Paul’s speech used his filibuster as a launch pad to run smoothly from one big idea about liberty to another, where Rubio’s approach was more about machine-gunning those ideas as bright bursts of ideological energy, in between warm personal anecdotes.  They really would make an interesting ticket together.  Perhaps the utility of these two approaches depends on the audience.  Paul structured his speech as a methodical effort to persuade conservative intellectuals to undertake a libertarian transformation.

He built from the filibuster, which he said was about much more than drone strikes (and, obviously, about much more than the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA – the nominal object of Paul’s Senate action) to a call for Republicans to assert themselves more consistently as the party of liberty, both personal and economic.  He cited this as Ronald Reagan’s law: “For liberty to expand, government must shrink.”

This directive begins with Paul’s opposition to unilateral executive action against terrorists.  He quoted Montesquieu to declare, “There can be no liberty if you combine the executive and the legislative branches.  Likewise, there can be no justice if you combine the executive and the judicial branch.  We separated arrest from accusation, and trial from verdict, for a reason.”

It’s interesting ground to begin Paul’s libertarian argument from, because in this case the “verdict” – the elimination of terrorists – is something a lot of people on both the Right and Left support, more or less reflexively.  But that’s a key element of his argument: the importance of restraining government power in the face of what appears to be popular consensus.  “Do we have a Bill of Rights?” Paul asked.  “Do we have a Constitution?  And will we defend it?”

The atrophy of government restraint in the face of popular demand has led us to a situation where “as government grows, liberty becomes marginalized.  The collective takes precedent over the individual.  Freedom shrinks.  And our government today is larger than it has ever been in our history.  Everything that America has been… everything we ever wished to be… is now threatened by the notion that you can have something for nothing.”

“For liberty to expand, government must shrink,” Paul declared, mocking the President’s hysterical over-reaction to the modest sequestration “cuts” – which, as Paul noted, really aren’t “cuts” at all, since the size of government would still increase by $7 trillion.  He had a bit of fun with the public-relations disaster of the White House tour cancellations, suggesting a few other spending items the President should consider cutting instead: $3 million for studying monkeys on meth, $300,000 for a robot squirrel, $5,000 a head for a program in Hawaii to cook up a menu for a hypothetical Martian colony.

Relentless criticism of this kind of nonsense should be part of the Republican outreach to young voters, who want leadership that “won’t sell them a line of crap.”  Paul cited the imprisonment of non-violent drug users, bank bailouts, and the tottering Social Security system as the sort of crap he had in mind.  He suggested that with such issues, libertarian conservatism could be infused with populist energy, bringing together both the Right and approachable voters from the center-Left.

The speech wasn’t just about philosophy, though, because Paul finished up by describing the budget proposal he plans to introduce.  Among other features, he said it would balance the budget in five years (considerably more ambitious than the 10-year plan in House Budget chair Paul Ryan’s blueprint), eliminate the Department of Education, devolve money and power to the states, cut the corporate tax rate in half, introduce a 17 percent flat tax on personal income, and cut the regulations that are “strangling American business.”  It’s a plan that would create millions of jobs in Paul’s estimation, because “the only ‘stimulus’ ever proven to work is leaving more money in the hands of those who earned it.”

Such dramatic proposals would be key elements of a resurgent Republican Party.  “For conservatives to win nationally, we must stand for something,” said Paul.  “We must stand on principle.  We must stand for something so powerful, and so popular, that it brings together people from the Left, and the Right, and the middle.  We need a Republican Party that shows up on the south side of Chicago and shouts at the top of our lungs, ‘We are the party of jobs and opportunity!  The GOP is the ticket to the middle class!'”

He didn’t see much of a future in sticking with “the GOP of old,” which has become “stale and moss-covered.”  He didn’t have to name any names.  The images of Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham readily appeared in the minds of every listener.  But as funny as this barbed tip at the end of his speech was, it really would have been interesting to hear Senator Paul go ahead and toss out a few other names he thinks are stale and moss-covered.