NEW YORK – The more people see of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, the more they’re impressed with his political talent.
The Kentucky Republican can come across as an ordinary guy even though he’s the son of a famously ideological politician. He can identify the right way to frame an issue and the right moment to raise it. His filibuster in March in protest of domestic drone strikes, though based on a fanciful threat, moved the Republican Party in his direction on civil liberties.
And with confidence in government on the decline, the time would seem to be ripe for Paul’s brand of libertarianism. The senator himself has presented his approach as a cure for what ails his party. He recently told Chris Wallace of Fox News that the “libertarian Republican narrative” would make the party competitive again on the West Coast, in New England and around the Great Lakes.
During the same interview, he suggested that the party would do well to emulate his relatively relaxed attitude toward drugs, his welcoming disposition toward undocumented immigrants and his restraint in foreign policy. He has also suggested that voters who feel alienated from the Republican Party might warm to him because he is “crunchy.” He composts, for example.
Republicans would be wise to copy some of what Paul is doing. His states-rights position on marijuana might, at the margins, gain some votes. And the party might improve its image a bit if it took up criminal-justice reform, another of his causes. Paul’s appearances at black colleges have been criticized as clumsy attempts at outreach, but clumsy beats nonexistent.
In general, though, Paul’s political analysis amounts to wishful thinking. It is hard to see California voting for someone who opposes same-sex marriage and sponsored the Life at Conception Act. Black voters seem unlikely to support someone who once expressed opposition to a key part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And the reason Michigan has voted Democratic in the last six presidential elections isn’t because Republicans are too anti-immigrant.
How pro-immigrant is Paul, for that matter? He’s leaning toward a no vote on the immigration bill, which would surely be cast as an anti-Hispanic position if he were the Republican presidential nominee in 2016. He wants to allow many more guest workers than the bill would permit, while offering them fewer legal protections, which doesn’t sound very welcoming.
Paul’s core problem, though, is his economic agenda. He thinks his views are more attractive than those of past Republicans because he rejects big government and the ways it helps big business. But in practice, this “libertarian populism” puts Republicans exactly where they don’t need to be: on the opposite side from the middle class.
Paul’s economic plan includes a 17 percent flat tax to replace the current income tax. The effect of such a policy would be a bigger bill for a lot of middle-class households. The median income for a family of four is $65,000, and under the current tax code — assuming the family takes the standard deduction — its federal income-tax bill would be about $2,700. Under the plan Paul sketches, it would be about $3,500.
A single mother of one making $35,000 a year would see her tax liability rise, too. If she uses the standard deduction, she pays about $1,500 today. She’d probably pay $2,100 if Paul had his way.
The very richest Americans, on the other hand, would see their taxes decrease a lot. The journalists buzzing about Paul have rarely discussed this. They want to talk to him about foreign policy or marijuana. I suspect that if he were a presidential nominee, however, voters would see a lot more Democratic ads about his views on taxes. And he wouldn’t come across as the candidate who wants to keep the government out of their wallets.
Paul’s passionate fans like to contrast him with the 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. In a way, they’re right. When Democrats accused Romney during the campaign of wanting to cut tax rates for the rich and raise taxes on the middle class, he fumed that they were distorting his record. Paul’s plan, by contrast, does this quite explicitly.
Paul has time to change his tax plan before any presidential run. Nonetheless, it illustrates the flaw in his attempt to rebrand the party. What has hurt Republicans most is the conviction of most Americans, too often justified, that the party is uninterested in strengthening the struggling middle class. So far, that’s a problem Paul seems uninterested in solving.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review.