MANCHESTER, New Hampshire—Rand Paul loves the free market, and in a one-day five-stop New Hampshire tour, the Kentucky senator dispensed his praise for it like water from an aspergillum. At Murphy’s Diner, when the morning hour matched the temperature on the street, he said the free market was the solution to shrinking the budget and strengthening the economy. At lunchtime, in the Quonset hut of the Londonderry Fish and Game Club, he preached to the standing-room-only crowd about “the freedom to own things.” In the library at the Founders Academy, a charter school with rules for proper behavior written on a yellow sheet on the wall and volumes of Shakespeare stacked like sandbags, he argued that market competition among states should replace Common Core education standards.
So of course he has a free market answer to the growing size of the Republican presidential field. “The more the merrier,” he said as we talked in the “primary room,” across the hall from the Manchester mayor’s office at City Hall where the walls are decorated with buttons, yard signs, and newspapers from previous elections. (A placard in the room reads, “Assume that cameras and audio are always recording,” which is good advice—and nearly encapsulates Paul’s view of government surveillance).
It’s good for the voters to have choices, says Paul, and it seems like Republican voters have more every day. Mitt Romney is seriously considering a run. Former three-term New York Gov. George Pataki just visited New Hampshire to see if anyone remembers him. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is making soundings. It’s getting to be the case that the R next to a politician’s name stands for “Running for president.” “I saw in the paper recently they listed who might run for the Republican primary,” said Paul. “It was like the whole page.”
But Paul isn’t just being ideologically consistent when he says, “More the merrier.” He’s happy to see the others split the vote. On the establishment side of the party, Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie will fight for the share of voters who want a pragmatist with executive experience. Social conservatives will splinter between Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, and Mike Huckabee. Paul will have relatively less competition for the libertarian conservatives of the kind who supported his father in the state in 2012, when Rep. Ron Paul came in second to Mitt Romney with 23 percent of the vote.
But the son is not the father. To make that clear he has said his father will not be campaigning with him. Sen. Paul’s foreign policy views are less confrontational and isolationist than his father’s are, and he is running a more traditional campaign, assembling constituency groups, not just relying on tribal loyalism. At Murphy’s, Paul talked to small government legislators, at the gun club it was Second Amendment enthusiasts, and at Founders it was education activists. You could almost see the chart on which the careful constituent tending had been mapped out.
It’s also important to keep his dad in Texas because the son is promoting newness as an attribute of his campaign. Almost every likely GOP candidate is presenting himself as the solution to The Problem: how to reverse the trend where Republicans lose the popular vote in presidential elections, something that has happened in five of the past six contests. For Paul he is the solution because he thinks his message of limited government at home and limited engagements abroad will attract untraditional GOP voters.
That’s why he’s casting aside Mitt Romney. “Gov. Romney a month ago said, ‘I’ve had my chance, it’s time for somebody fresh and new,’ and I kind of still tend to agree with what Gov. Romney said,” he told me. “I supported him, I endorsed him, I traveled for him. But he couldn’t attract enough people. The constituency to win a presidential election has to be bigger and more diverse than we’ve ever had or we will not win or cannot win, and so I think that some of that, there will be an argument for winnability, that we need to try something new.”
Later, Paul said nominating Romney would fulfill Einstein’s “definition of insanity,” by doing the same thing again and again while expecting a different result.
Paul is also different than his father in just how far he’s willing to go when talking about foreign policy. He told voters the Iraq war was a mistake, and so was the intervention in Libya. “We made a mistake, we made the world less stable by toppling Qaddafi, we should have not gotten involved,” he said. But as he talks about combating Islamic extremists, he is careful not to go as far as his father did and claim that they want to kill Americans because America’s foreign policy provokes them. He focuses on tightening the net to keep jihadists out of the country but says “think tanks and philosophers can discuss the whys” of their desire to do so.
Paul’s trip to New Hampshire was a presidential campaign stop. He says he will make his decision whether to run some time in the spring, but the veneer that he wasn’t a candidate was like the black ice on the street—you didn’t see it until someone slipped. You were only reminded that he wasn’t running when someone corrected themselves after calling him a presidential candidate by saying, “If he runs.”
When Paul spoke to the members of the Londonderry Fish and Game Club he referred to himself as a member of the class of presidential candidates. “I don’t think you’ll probably find anybody in our primary who’s going to come up here and say they don’t support the Second Amendment. So really the job of voters sometimes is sifting through who they think can best advocate for the position, who has advocated for the position, and how do we do it best.” He then engaged the audience on the hypothetical policies of a Paul presidency, including dropping out of the United Nations.
By late in the afternoon Paul was actively poking the presidential bear. A woman asked what voters could realistically expect from their elected officials that would stop federal meddling in education. “It depends what you elect me to,” he said with an impish smile, an unmistakable reference to the presidency.
Paul, like many presidential candidates who hold office in Washington, is running as the one true voice in Babylon. “The knowledge in Washington circulates around and everyone reinforces each other with the wrong information, so what’s very popular in Washington has absolutely no popularity out in the country,” he says. As proof of his credentials he boasts about his failures. He was one of only a handful of supporters on bills to extend even greater Second Amendment rights that didn’t pass and pushed to stop the reauthorization of the Bush-era education bill, No Child Left Behind, a gambit that also didn’t work.
In making his case, Paul engages in considerable hyperbole. He told lawmakers at Murphy’s Diner, “In Washington, there is not a war anywhere where they don’t think there should be boots on the ground.” He said this was true of both parties. It’s obviously not—there are plenty of wars on the planet neither party cares about at all. (Who has argued for U.S. intervention in the Kivu conflict?) And, even where U.S. interests are engaged, like in Syria in the fall of 2013, the president couldn’t get congressional support for a bombing campaign.
Paul assigns these exaggerations to the fact that all campaigning happens in hyperbole. He’s certainly not the first to bring a few straw men in his black SUV, but we’ll have to see how this works toward Paul’s larger goal of enlarging his party. These lines thrill already convinced Republicans with a dark view of Washington, but do they offer enough of a vision to lure converts?
This isn’t a problem at the moment. For now, Paul’s goal is to gather together the members of his party, which means building on his existing base of support. Then, as the contest heats up, he’ll have to take his guidance from the beneficent motions of the free market.