Rand Paul usually starts with a joke; it relieves the tension that’s never there. On Tuesday, Sept. 30, the junior Senator from Kentucky is running a little late, but a University of South Carolina lecture room is already overfull, stragglers fighting for space behind a row of TV cameras. A few college Democrats are in the room, but as listeners, not hecklers.
Most of the students actually sound like Brett Harris, a sophomore studying political science, who had showed up an hour early to win a front-row center seat. “I’d have camped out on the lawn if I’d had to,” he says, clutching a red-and-white STAND WITH RAND sign to his matching STAND WITH RAND T-shirt. “Of course I would! It’s Rand Paul!”
Harris starts to explain his affinity for Paul, and how right he’s been about foreign policy, when the man himself arrives; jeans and battered cowboy boots, no jacket. This will be his uniform for two days of speeches and schmoozing and selfies, across South Carolina and North Carolina, in front of everyone from military veterans to pastors to reporters to donors to students. The students would come first.
“Last time I was here, I was at a barbecue,” says Paul. “The guy in front of me was loading up two plates of barbecue. I said, ‘You’re not gonna live long eating like that!’ He said, ‘My granddad lived to be 105.’ I said, ‘He didn’t live to 105 by eating like that.’ He said, ‘No, my granddad lived to be 105 by minding his own business.’”
The joke is as fresh as the last grease scrapings from an outdoor smoker. Two years ago, Paul liked to deliver it before introducing his father, Rep. Ron Paul, to the Republican voters tasked with picking a presidential nominee. His father badly lost the South Carolina primary both times he ran, which was taken as evidence that antiwar libertarianism had no place in the heartland of the modern Republican party. Rand Paul is in the state to explain what these voters missed. His sort of politics should be popular—in fact, isn’t it popular already?
“Sometimes I think if we ought to have a campaign theme for government, that ought to be it,” says Paul when the guffaws subside. “Minding your own business. Maybe there’s enough of us in the country who say, you know what? Let’s be part of the Leave Me Alone coalition.”
He segues right into his case against the NSA over its monitoring of smartphone metadata, the issue that brought him a warm reception at Berkeley in March. That was the start of six months of positive coverage for “the most interesting man in politics” (Politico), a “one-man think tank” (Politico again), who—refreshingly, in this business—freely admits he may run for president. Paul publishes at least a few columns every month, everywhere from Breitbart.com (which has sent a reporter to South Carolina) to Time (them, too); on a college campus he can reshuffle from his greatest hits and win everyone over.
“There are many in our party who are very good at defending the Second Amendment, but not as good at defending the Fourth Amendment,” says Paul. “We want to stop the people who are attacking us, but we can’t let our anger for those who attack us destroy the rights of those of us who are Americans. Imagine an Arab American who goes to your school. He sends an email to his cousin who lives in Lebanon. Someone says, ‘Your cousin in Lebanon is related to someone who’s in Hezbollah.’ If you’re accused of something, shouldn’t you get your day in court?”
Even the College Democrats are nodding. “I had this discussion on the floor with another Republican senator,” says Paul. “I won’t name any names, but he’s from Arizona.” (Big laughs at the expense of the state’s 2008 GOP primary winner.) “I asked him, ‘Would you send an American to Guantanamo Bay for an accusation, without a trial, without a lawyer?’ He said, ‘Yeah, if they’re dangerous.’ That begs the question: Who gets to decide who’s dangerous and who’s not?”
Paul could get away with saying that on a college campus, sure.
The rest of South Carolina had never been so hospitable to those arguments. Paul’s Southern roundabout coincided with a new air war against ISIS,which had evolved from obscure to overrated after it beheaded two kidnapped journalists in propaganda videos. Days after the videos dropped, more than 70 percent of Americans were telling pollsters that they backed attacks on ISIS. A majority of Republicans, then of all voters, started saying they’d back ground troops.
This looked like a crisis for the Man of the Libertarian Moment. He’d come into his own after a March 2013 filibuster that threatened to block a vote on a new CIA director until the Obama administration answered his question: Did it legally justify the killing of American citizens if it suspected them of terror ties? And now his fellow Republicans were debating whether to rip citizenship from Americans connected to ISIS and turn the drones on them. As recently as June, Paul had argued against any intervention in Iraq.
Was Paul back in the minority, fighting against the norms of the GOP? Not in Columbia. Paul tells students that he favors military action against ISIS—it’s threatening American embassies, a clear danger—but opposes the inauguration of strikes without a vote in Congress. He opposed the use of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force as a justification for ongoing action, too. “Can one generation bind a new generation to war?” Paul asks. “Will we in 20 years be fighting a war and saying, ‘Oh yeah, we voted for it in 2001?’”
That goes over well in a crowd of millennials. Paul wraps up, takes some friendly questions about Hillary Clinton (“Do we want a commander in chief who failed us and didn’t provide security for our embassy?”) and his boots (“They’re probably older than you are”), and stands for photos. Most of the students stay in the room, crowding around the senator as his media attaché, Sergio Gor, snaps pictures. After they finish, State Senator John Courson approaches Paul to reminisce about the 1976 Republican National Convention. Both of them had been delegates for Ronald Reagan; Paul’s father, then in Congress, was an early Reagan endorser.
“I remember Texas was on one side, and California was on the other side,” Paul tells Courson. “So you’d hear a chant on either side: ‘Viva, olé! Viva, olé!’”
Paul heads out. A helpful GOP flack intercepts an agitated-looking older man who kept trying to hand documents to the senator, but Courson sticks around to assess Paul’s comments about Iraq and Benghazi. A former Marine, he finds himself agreeing with the libertarian. “On foreign policy,” Courson says, “I appreciate his lack of desire to send Marines into every country of the world to fight these wars.”
I relocate my car and wonder how many South Carolina voters might agree with that.
Some history: In 2008 and 2012, Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns fared far worse in South Carolina than in the other early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. The final campaign, with Senator Paul stumping alongside his dad and spinning for him after debates, came to a particularly brutal passage in South Carolina.
Paul had come a close third in Iowa and a strong second in New Hampshire. The campaign’s internal polling showed the candidate surging to 19 percent—enough for a surprise finish that might knock another candidate out of the race. Paul hadn’t concentrated on the state and would spend a total of four days there, but his advisers made a $1.2 million bet on TV ads.
Then came the debate in Myrtle Beach, hosted by Fox News. Ron Paul was asked if he’d stand by his criticism of the military operation that killed Osama bin Laden. He said he would. “If somebody in this country, say a Chinese dissident, comes over here, we wouldn’t endorse the idea, ‘Well, they can come over here and bomb us and do whatever,’” he explained. “I’m just trying to suggest that respect for other nations’ sovereignty.”
The rest of the 2016 field took turns on Paul, whacking away at his naïveté. “The right thing for Osama bin Laden was the bullet in the head that he received,” said Mitt Romney, with whom the Paul campaign had until then maintained a sort of détente. Standing up for American power and immediate military action—this was the safe answer in South Carolina.
“The campaign knew it right away,” remembers State Senator Tom Davis, an early endorser of Ron Paul. “I was watching from the audience. [Campaign manager] Jesse Benton, he texted me and said, ‘Get up here!’ So I went up, in the middle of debate, and was told, ’You gotta get down there and help us. Here’s the message you need to drive: Dr. Paul was for letters of marque and reprisal, for tracking down bin Laden. We gotta get that out there.’”
Davis did his best, but whatever chance there’d been of a Ron Paul surge ended in Myrtle Beach. “We spun that message, but couldn’t un-ring that bell,” Davis says. “A lot of the veterans retire on the coast, you know, and that’s where Ron Paul’s perceived isolationism was a killer. They heard him say that about bin Laden, and they’d hear him talk about blowback from our wars, and they’d react almost like he was a modern-day Charles Lindbergh.”
The numbers bore that out. Ron Paul did well enough in conservative upstate South Carolina, cracking 18 percent of the vote in a few counties. He was massacred in the retirement paradises of the coast, not even cracking 10 percent in Horry County— Myrtle Beach. South Carolina might have lost its record of picking presidential nominees, but it made sure the hawks won out and the doves were driven to the back.
Two years later, the candidate’s son is spending far more time in the state and sidestepping those foreign policy mistakes. Paul flies east from Columbia and finds his way into a lecture hall at the College of Charleston. If anything, the crowd is even friendlier. Members of Young Americans for Liberty, a group founded by Paul’s father in 2008, show up with sign-up sheets and buttons. The foreign policy material makes no waves; the only ripples come when Paul is asked about Plan B. He shrugs and says he’s “not opposed to birth control.”
After the speech, Gor finds a backroom where Paul and a small group of reporters can assess the tour so far. The press probes for some way Paul might alienate the South Carolina Republican voter. How was his foreign policy faring in a state full of hawks and military veterans?
“I come from a family with that same tradition,” Paul says. “My father-in-law served 20 years in the Air Force. My father, five years in the Air Force. My brother-in-law [went to the] Air Force Academy; my nephew is currently in the Navy. I tell people that what you have to do is, first, you should follow the Constitution. The Constitution says that Congress votes on war.”
That’s the only foreign policy difference Paul is staking out. Islamic State, he says, is “a threat to our consulate in Erbil, to the embassy in Baghdad, and potentially to the homeland.” The president had blown a chance to be a “great leader” and call Congress back to vote on airstrikes.
I ask Paul if the median South Carolina Republican wants something more from Washington. What does he make of the polls that show most Republicans are ready to send ground troops into Iraq to fight Islamic State?
“Well, a poll, depending on how you word it—you can get any answer you want,” Paul says. “We should be reluctant to go to war. One of Reagan’s first statements, one he made in his first inaugural, was ‘Don’t mistake our reluctance for war for a lack of resolve.’”
Paul’s answers drive right down the middle between hawkishness and sorrow that Obama had betrayed the constitutional ideals of his 2008 campaign. “There’s been a lot of commentary about your relationship with Senator McCain,” says CNN’s Peter Hamby.
Paul raises his right hand and crosses his fingers, but Hamby isn’t done.
“What’s your relationship like personally with Senator Graham?”
“Oh,” Paul says. He keeps his fingers crossed as the reporters laugh. “The same! I consider myself to be on good personal terms with both.”
Just a week earlier, Paul had repeated an often debunked claim that McCain, gripped by his war fever, once met with Middle East freedom fighters who turned out to be Islamic State members. In South Carolina, he’d stay away from that argument. He had a plane to catch: Next stop, Myrtle Beach.
On the way across the state, Paul knocks out a few interviews with the conservative press. There it’s easy to sound more responsible, more foreign policy-seasoned, than the Obama administration, which had sent soldiers to Africa without asking Congress to sign off. “Can you imagine if a whole ship full of our soldiers catch Ebola?” Paul asks in an appearance on Laura Ingraham’s show. Speech by speech, he is attempting to alter the DNA of the GOP. It helps that Obama is president and not some Republican conservatives would be inclined to trust with a new war.
In the late afternoon, Paul walks into the Horry County GOP headquarters and out of his comfort zone.
College students are one thing, but Myrtle Beach is a bastion of Republican hawkishness, of snowbird retirees and New York escapees wearing baseball caps that record their time in the Navy or the Army or the Marines.
A “strong America” means one thing to Paul and something else to them. Tables are piled with campaign swag for Lindsey Graham, and with BUSH COUNTRY palmetto posters from the campaign of the president who’d gotten America into Iraq. Bush had warned about terrorists sneaking into America unless the Middle East was made safe for democracy. Graham still talks that way, and regularly asks voters to imagine “an American city in flames because of the terrorists' ability to operate in Syria and Iraq.” This year, Graham had easily put away an Apple Dumpling Gang of primary challengers; Horry County gave him 67.2 percent of the vote in the seven-way race.
Paul doesn’t alter his pitch for Myrtle Beach—not one word of it. “We have toppled secular dictator after secular dictator after secular dictator,” he says. “If there’s one thing you can say about Middle East, every time we’ve toppled a secular dictator, we’ve gotten chaos, and we’ve got the rise of radicalism.”
The crowd stays with him. “Some in our party want to always intervene,” he says. “Everywhere, all the time. They’d have us in 15 wars if they could! But if we’d have bombed Assad, who do you think would be in Damascus right now? If we’d have bombed Assad, ISIS would be in charge of all of Syria right now.” Then comes the Reagan reference that seemed to work in Charleston: “He said, ‘Don’t mistake our reluctance for war as a lack of resolve.’ The slogan wasn’t ‘war through strength.’ His slogan wasn’t ‘we want to be involved in 15 wars around the world.’”
Paul is taking piñata whacks at the people who’d won GOP primaries in the state, in that county, and getting no brushback. He pivots quickly to attacks on Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi record—“had Bill been president, even he would have fired her”—and ends with a quote that’s becoming a standard set piece in his speeches to possible primary voters.
“There was a painter named Robert Henri,” Paul says, “and he said, ‘Paint like a man coming over the hill singing.’ I think if we proclaim our message like a man coming over the hill singing, then we can be the dominant party.”
End of speech. Paul has seemingly just sold his foreign policy to the Republicans least likely to embrace it, starting with Reaganesque jokes and ending with his own spin on Reagan’s “city on a hill.” As the senator heads to the van that will take him to the airport, I ask about the 2012 Ron Paul campaign. The son had seen what happened to his father when he ran afoul of South Carolina’s hawks. How could he criticize foreign intervention and avoid that trap?
“I think it’s complicated,” Paul says. “The reasons why we have people who dislike us is multifactorial. It’s not one thing or another. I think if we did nothing and were not involved anywhere in the world, still a lot of people in radical Islam would hate us. Some people will hate us for irrational or aberrant religious reasons. Sometimes policy can exacerbate it. For example, I think toppling of secular dictators has allowed chaos and the rise of radical Islam. There are results to actions. I think that’s bad policy, and that’s why we have a debate over what our foreign policy should be. But I don’t discount the fact that there is a barbaric form of Islam that just simply hates America and the West.”
Two weeks earlier, the Washington Post had run a story about Paul’s “shifting” stances on foreign policy (and a whole lot else). I ask if his study of other American interventions, reported in that piece, was informing his strategy for Iraq.
“I don’t know how accurate your description of your question was,” Paul says. He’d previously called the Post story a “hit piece,” and he insists now that he’s seeking a middle path between the gospel of the hawks and the isolationist dogma. “One is that we’re nowhere all of the time, one is that we’re everywhere all of the time. I’ve been saying for five years we need a more moderated stance, somewhere in the middle.”
No more questions—Paul is off to meet the pastors. Back in the GOP headquarters, the crowd is polishing off some free ice cream and pondering the questions Paul didn’t take. Keith Van Winkle, who supported Gingrich in the 2012 primary, is thinking about Paul’s 2013 drone speech. He’s been awfully concerned about the rights of Americans not to be held or killed because they were suspected of terrorism. What about Americans who might now be fighting for Islamic State?
“If they’re American citizens overseas and they’re fighting for the terrorists, then hell yeah, zap ’em out of the air,” Van Winkle says. “They’ve basically chosen to relinquish their citizenship.”
Linda McHugh, a retiree from Long Island, overhears this and decides to chime in. “When he was talking about the drones, that was before we had ISIS,” she says. “We didn’t consider ISIS. We were thinking about an individual American citizen being killed.”
“I’d revoke their citizenship,” Van Winkle says.
“Try ’em for treason,” says McHugh’s husband John, a retired New York City cop.
That is one dispute, minor in the larger scheme. When asked if they’d backed the 2002 invasion of Iraq, the Myrtle Beach Republicans admit that they had. When asked if they agree with Paul about the blowback—well, it’s hard not to.
“I was more supportive of the idea of overthrowing dictators back then,” says Elaine Lilling, who generally enjoyed the speech, “but now you kind of wonder if it was the most sensible procedure. It seems like it allowed ISIS to come in and take over. Maybe I’m just stating the obvious.”
Maybe she is, but it was hardly obvious in 2002. The Pauls seem to be winning an argument after a generation of losing it. The libertarian tendency inside the GOP is not being rattled by the Islamic State crisis—it’s challenged, sure, but more essential than ever.
That’s even clearer on Wednesday morning, when a rested Paul joins North Carolina’s underperforming Republican candidate for Senate, Thom Tillis. The State House speaker won the May primary over Greg Brannon, a doctor who worshiped the Pauls and had even coaxed Rand Paul into the state to stump for him. Yet the Tillis bandwagon is rickety, and Republicans are flop-sweating with panic over the Libertarian Party candidacy of Sean Haugh.
Paul arrives to lay hands and convert small "l" libertarians into Tillis voters.
The two men show up on time, walking past a sign that reads CONFEDERATE PARKING ONLY, and into a sea of voters whom Paul can ply with anecdotes about his college days at Duke. Rachel Mills, seated a few tables away from the scrum, is Haugh’s campaign manager. Prior to that, she was Ron Paul’s spokeswoman in his final congressional terms.
“My hope is that the Rand events go really, really well, much better than the Jeb Bush or Chris Christie or Lindsey Graham events that Tillis has been holding,” Mills says. “That would show him which way to go. That’s been my goal all along, to demonstrate that there’s a libertarian electorate that needs to be catered to.”
Paul and Tillis high-tail it out of the event to head to a private fundraiser where the candidate will rack up further debts to the libertarian senator.
Just a few hours later, Paul is on hand in Greenville, N.C., to help a Republican who’d been there for the family when they’d been grossly outnumbered.
Representative Walter Jones, who voted for the 2002 Iraq War and then turned against it, had survived a spirited primary challenge from a Republican lobbyist. Jones’s enemies were Paul’s enemies. It was at a Young Americans for Liberty event, in 2013, that Jones said Dick Cheney would one day join other American warmongers and rot “in hell.”
The two of them were thriving, and they wouldn’t let the GOP’s hawks forget it. Paul joins Jones to pose for photos with high-dollar donors and make a short speech. When the closed-door events are done, Jones takes the stage in a Hyatt ballroom where the entry-level donors are eating hush puppies and pulled pork in a “celebration of freedom,” in his honor. It’s staged like a roast in reverse, the congressman sitting, hands folded in his lap, as his political allies praise him and offer to continue his agenda. But first, Jones gives a short introduction of the friend he wants to run the Republican Party, and the country.
“There is no way to govern the people of America unless you try to follow the Constitution, [when] it means sending our young men and women overseas, risking their legs, their arms, without coming to Congress first,” Jones says. Paul waits backstage, hand on his chin. “Mr. Bush did not keep his word when he swore to the American people. Mr. Obama has not kept his word when he swore to the American people. But the man I’m gonna introduce now will keep his word to the American people.”
That’s Paul’s cue to deliver the last stemwinder of the trip, a 30-minute compilation of all his best lines. He starts with a joke.
“I was in the barbecue line, and there was a guy in front of me tonight,” Paul says. “We won’t name any names. He had two heaping plates of barbecue, and I said, ‘You’re not gonna live long eatin’ like that!’ He said, ‘Well, my grandpa lived to be 105…’”