In the long summer before the 2008 Republican convention, Rep. Ron Paul only sort of admitted defeat. He turned his main organization into the Campaign for Liberty; he did the same to his youth organization, transitioning its president, Jeff Frazee, into a new, ongoing role.
Five years on, Paul has a clutch of acolytes in the House and Senate, and Young Americans for Liberty meets annually to train young activists and let them hear political pep talks. At least 40 reporters showed up for night one, which started with a series of prizes for students and continued with a panel of stars: Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul. I'd hoped for a free-for-all of student questions, pinning down the senators on libertarian litmus test issues, but what I got what a Frazee-moderated discussion that stuck almost entirely to the NSA and fiscal policy.
Well, almost. It really started with Frazee asking the senators what they'd been like as young men. Only one man on the stage had faced campaign ads shaming him for a college prank. So Rand Paul ran into the flames.
"When I was in college, I was in the library every night, home in bed by 9," he said. "I never drank any beer or smoked any pot." He stopped himself. "Oh, actually, no, no, that's Mike Lee's story! I'm stealing Mike Lee's story!"
The serious bits:
Lesson one: Sequestration was both a joke, and a worthy victory for small-government believers. Paul, using the tone with which he'd mocked Chris Christie this week ("Gimme gimme more Sandy money!"), mimicked a fear-mongering Barack Obama. "Ohhh, the planes are gonna crash into each other!" said Paul, as hundreds of (mostly male) college students chuckled. "The food will be rancid! We can't fire the guy who's trying to invent roll-up beef jerky, but we have to fire the food inspectors? Everybody now knows that the president wasn't joking, he wasn't being sarcastic—he was just maybe being dishonest."
Lesson two: Social Security is doomed, and Barack Obama knows it. Lee walked through the Supreme Court precedent that made the program legal ("they saved it as a tax—sounds familiar?") and explained why all of the libertarians' suspicions about it were right. "It's your money. It's your property. The government has lied to you."
Cruz, whose national politician ambitions may be larger than Lee's, took a less absolutist approach. The coming crash of the system, he said, "presents an opportunity to reform Social Security, to make the program solvent and strong."
There came a loud boooooooooo from the back of the room. This wasn't a crowd interested in personal accounts inside an existing Social Security system, though that's what Cruz pitched for a few minutes. "It's still socialism," grumbled the heckler, at a lower volume.
Paul just talked about his and Lee's vain efforts to introduce a Social Security reform bill. "We raised the age," he said. "We means-tested it. We tried to get Democats on board—Democrats have to know, we need to do this. ... I asked the president face to face, I asked the vice president face to face, don't we have to raise the age? Wouldn't means-testing raise the age, fix a lot of these problems? They both say yes in private, won't say yes in public."
Lesson three: The greatest threats to personal freedom were the TSA, the NSA, and ... any other acronyms the government was using at present. Cruz praised Paul for his "heroic filibuster" on domestic use of drones, and reminded the crowd that he (Cruz) had been there for him in another moment of crisis.
"I remember when Rand was detained by the TSA," said Cruz. "On Facebook, we launched a petition to Free Rand. The meme that was chosen for that was a picture of a physician putting on a rubber glove. For some reason, online, that really went viral." Lee added that he'd texted Paul some advice that day on which constitutional passages to cite as the TSA hassled him. Not discussed: immigration, any social issues, or even the standby of the drug war.