Building on his media-star momentum coming out of last week's 13-hour drone-focused filibuster, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., delivered a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference that put on display the tensions currently plaguing the Republican Party, and made a play for the party's future base, which he called the Facebook generation.
Paul at times seemed to befuddle the older breed of social conservatives in the audience while simultaneously delighting a vocal crowd of young people who held aloft professionally printed placards provided by the Ron Paul youth group, Young Americans for Liberty, emblazoned with the slogan, "Stand With Rand" in black lettering against a red background, and decorated with a silhouetted drawing of their hero. (During Paul's filibuster, designed to delay the nomination vote for John Brennan, President Barack Obama's pick to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, his Twitter fans deployed the hashtag, #StandWithRand.)
Riding high on the buzz his "talking filibuster" created, Paul wasted no time reminding the crowd of his triumph. "They told me I had a measly 10 minutes," he said upon his arrival at the podium. "So, just in case, I brought 13 hours of material," he joked, holding up two fat loose-leaf binders. He went on to talk for nearly 20 minutes.
Confusion Among the Elders
When Paul dug into his views on civil liberties, he drew only polite applause from the grown-ups in the audience, while the kids clapped loudly. But when the talk turned to punishing Egypt for its citizens' burning of an American flag, or to Paul's proposed 17-percent across-the-board tax cut, or eliminating the Department of Education, or protecting the Second Amendment, the generations drew together with enthusiastic applause.
Among the lines that fell flat among the older folks were Paul's contention that executive power needs to be kept in check, and that the president should not be permitted to name American citizens as "enemy combatants," which created conditions by which they could be "droned" or "indefinitely detained" without a trial. He said that Obama has signed into law a bill that would do just that, though he didn't name the law.
As he opened his speech, Paul said his filibuster was intended as a message to the president. A heckler piped up: "Don't drone me, bro!"
"He just boiled down my speech to three words," Paul responded.
"If we allow one man to charge Americans as enemy combatants and indefinitely detain or drone them, then what exactly is it that our brave young men and women are fighting for?" he asked.
Politics of the Future and All That Crap
While most media focused on the optics, the joke and the filibuster, Rand Paul's speech was far more important than the politics of the moment; it was focused on the future. Though he framed it, towards the end, as a disquisition on the future of the Republican Party, it was as much a speech about the future of Rand Paul.
Paul may run for president in 2016, as he told Politico just hours after ending his filibuster, but he likely doesn't expect to win in that year. But 2020 or 2024? One of those is likely his target. And in order to do that, he needs to change the Republican Party. Enter the Facebook generation.
Today's 20-year-olds will then be out of college and struggling with their debt, and Paul is betting that his mix of neo-libertarian and subtle cultural identity politics will bring them his way. By talking up his opposition to the drug war and drones, and omitting any reference to his virulent anti-abortion views, anti-gay positions or contempt for applying racial-desegregation laws to business owners, Paul aims to win them.
"The Facebook generation can detect falseness and hypocrisy a mile away. I know; I have kids," Paul said. "They are the core, though, of the 'Leave Me Alone' coalition. They doubt Social Security will be there for them."
Interestingly, Paul is not a fan of Social Security's very existence, once famously dubbing it "a Ponzi scheme."
"They worry about jobs and money and rent and student loans," he continued. "They want leaders that won’t feed them a lot of crap, or sell them short."
Note the use of the word "crap."
"They aren’t afraid of individual liberty. Ask the Facebook generation if we should but a kid in jail for the non-violent crime of drug use, and you’ll hear a resounding ‘no,’" Paul asserted. "Ask the Facebook generation if they want to bail out too-big-to-fail banks with their tax dollars, and you’ll hear a “hell, no!’ There is nothing conservative about bailing out Wall Street. Likewise, there is nothing progressive about billion-dollar loans to millionaires to build solar panels."
"The Republican party has to change by moving forward the timeless and classical ideas enshrined in our Constitution," Paul concluded. "When we understand that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then we’ll become the dominant national party again. It’s time for us to revive Reagan’s Law: For liberty to expand, government must shrink."
Poor Little Marco
Paul was preceded on the podium by Marco Rubio, another youthful presidential contender, the one who Time magazine deemed the potential "savior" of the G.O.P., which is telling in and of itself. As was once said of Al Gore during the 1992 presidential campaign, he may prove to be an old person's idea of a young person. He may have been birthed by the Tea Party, but he's a protegé of the Bushes. His positions track more closely with those of the old men of the Grand Old Party than with the yearnings of the party's 20-something progeny.
Had he not been followed by Paul, Rubio would have had a very good outing with exactly the same speech he delivered today. But Paul has the momentum. And a horde of young, white millennials eager to pound the pavement for him.