The Hilton ballroom was not quite half full when Sen. Rand Paul arrived. Night one of the annual Liberty Political Action Conference had just started, with a speech from the WWE superstar Kane. Sans costume, the 7-foot tall Glenn Jacobs had explained that “the world’s governments” chose to build nuclear power plants with dicey uranium, instead of safe thorium, “because they were interested in the waste product—plutonium.”
After Jacobs wrapped, a representative of the Campaign for Liberty Foundation announced the four winners of that year’s Ron Paul Scholarships, and invited “the gentleman whose idea it was for the scholarship—Sen. Rand Paul!” And there he was, taking the stage to the sound of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” as 100-odd, mostly young members of the liberty movement stood and cheered. Paul stayed onstage after the awards were handed out.
“So, we just finished celebrating Constitution Day,” said Paul, as if leading into a joke about two guys walking into a bar. “Barack Obama celebrated by doing one more unconstitutional thing. He started an unconstitutional war this week. That’s not unusual for him.”
Outside the Alexandra Hilton Mark Center, Paul’s libertarian cred was being questioned. The Washington Post had reviewed Paul’s speeches, op-eds, and bills, and called Paul’s support for airstrikes against ISIS a “stark change of heart.” In an interview with the Daily Beast, Paul admitted that he was “like anyone else, susceptible to a certain degree, to the emotions of seeing Americans beheaded.”
Could Paul remain the libertarian peace candidate? Well, yeah. Before heading to the conference, Paul voted against a government-funding bill that included money to train rebel forces in Syria. He explained his vote in a floor speech, insisting that “the burden of proof lies with those who wish to engage in war,” and that they had not met it. The leaders and both Houses were going to recess without a new vote on military action. That was what Paul had called for, and he didn’t get it, which gave him a fresh chance to shame his colleagues.
“Everybody criticized it,” said Paul of the punted war authorization vote, “then everyone was like, ‘oh well, it’s an election year, let’s wait until December.’ ” He contrasted that with the arguments the administration had just made, insisting that the 2001 authorization of military force against anyone tangentially tied to the 9/11 plot could cover the strikes on ISIS. “If you said we could go after terrorists anywhere in the world who might be al-Qaida,” said Paul, “or might be cooperating or associating with al-Qaida, you’re saying that the authorization of force from 2001 could be used against the people you now want us to support!”
Paul’s audience cheered again, louder this time. The media that covered this senator simply did not get it. And there was plenty of media in the room—The New Yorker, CNN, BuzzFeed, Politico, MSNBC (which Paul bashes at every opportunity), Time, the Daily Beast. They were there to spot any cracks in the Paul coalition, and they found some. But the cracks were spackled over as soon as the light hit them. The crisis in Iraq, which has caused a surge in the numbers of Republicans ready to send ground troops back into the Middle East, has not really rattled Paul’s people. He has what very few political figures still have; his supporters assume that he simply must agree with them, no matter what he says.
To the frustration of Democrats, Paul has taken less heat from his base for new Iraq airstrikes than President Obama has taken from his. The LPAC attendees were savvy: They knew that Rand was saying what he had to, but was not diverting, not really, from the path of the realist.
“Everybody started coming at me last week with this—‘Oh, he’s switching from his daddy,’ ” said Dylan Stephenson, a system engineer from the D.C. suburbs, sitting near the hotel bar between sessions. “Well, I read his articles. He’s saying: Let’s team up with the Iranians, let’s team up with Assad. I had a friend at work tell me that Rand was changing. I showed him that article and he was like—‘Oh no, he’s crazy again!’ ”
Stephenson laughed. “That’s the neoconservative mentality. Did you hear McCain’s mess-up? He said, talking about Rand, ‘Did he meet with ISIS?’ They have pictures of McCain with ISIS!”
About that. Paul has insisted, several times, that a viral photo of Sen. McCain standing with armed men in Iraq portrays a meeting between ISIS and the king of all hawks. “That really shows you the quandary of determining who are the moderates and who aren’t,” Paul told the Daily Beast this week. McCain denied it to the same magazine, telling it that “most of the guys in that picture are dead now, killed by ISIS.”
The accusation remains, based on the photo and on careful misreadings of how McCain describes it. On the Sept. 15 episode of Fox News’s Hannity, when the host asked McCain to rebut Paul, the Arizonan sputtered: “Has Rand Paul ever been to Syria? Has he ever met with ISIS? Has he ever met with any of these people?” This, in Paulworld, is enough to sow doubt that McCain himself did meet with them.
Paul, meanwhile, can convince his audience of the moment that he has never been inconsistent, and never been duped. He responded to the lengthy Washington Post exegesis in a friendly conversation with the Federalist, a year-old conservative news site. He was not asked to respond to any point-by-point questions about his plan. “Do you believe you’ve changed your mind about the proper policy approach in this arena,” asked his interviewer, “or is this just a matter of people not making a distinction about the threats involved?”
Paul went through Door No. 2. “People say, ‘well, two months ago you were less likely to want to be involved in the Iraqi civil war,’ ” he said. “Well, five years ago I’d say that also.”
End of argument. If there is a rebellion against Rand Paul, it’s not likely to start at a conference founded by allies of his father, where scholarships named for him are handed out to youthful free marketeers. The 21-year-old who discovers Rand Paul today was 14 when Ron Paul ran his first Republican primary campaign; he may have no memory at all of George W. Bush’s campaigns for president. Paul is able to describe his foreign policy, and its critics, in a narrative that makes the liberty movement ineffably right. And ineffably patriotic.
The first night of LPAC ended with a speech from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who talked more about campaign finance reform and IRS spies than about foreign policy. After 10 p.m., when he was done, the young liberty movement spread across the hotel, into an ergonomic bar. Soon, a busload of World War II and Korean War veterans, part of the Honor Flight charity tours that let these men see their monuments, unloaded into the lobby. Everyone stood up and cheered. They were against any new war; they were on the soldiers’ side.