WASHINGTON -- "Stand with Rand," urged placards at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, where Sen. Rand Paul won last weekend's presidential straw poll, cementing the Kentucky Republican's status as a favorite of the conservative movement.
So it's with some trepidation that I confess that I, too, Stand with Rand.
For the moment, I am Standing with Rand on one leg only; his isolationist foreign policy and his calamitous plan to eliminate federal deficits in five years make it imprudent to jump in with both feet. But consider:
On Tuesday, Paul endorsed a version of immigration reform that would allow the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in this country to become legal.
Last week, he outlined an idea that would end government discrimination against gay marriage.
The week before, Paul defied the hawks in his party to lead a 13-hour filibuster in protest of the Obama administration's secrecy over its drone warfare program -- a stance Democrats would have championed if a Republican were president.
And the week before that, he was one of only four Republicans voting to confirm Chuck Hagel as defense secretary.
Taken together, these pleasant surprises suggest that Paul is more complex than his tea-party caricature and more savvy than the libertarian gadfly his father had been. In his speech to CPAC, the younger Paul didn't even mention the Federal Reserve or the gold standard. He has spoken, instead, of reaching out to minorities, young voters and other Democratic constituencies.
"I've never met a new immigrant looking for a free lunch," he told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, calling on his party to embrace higher levels of immigration. Paul proposed "acknowledging we aren't going to deport 12 million illegal immigrants. If you wish to work, if you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you."
At CPAC, Paul told the activists: "We must stand for something so powerful and so popular that it brings together people from the left and the right and the middle. We need a Republican Party that shows up on the South Side of Chicago and shouts at the top of our lungs: 'We are the party of jobs and opportunity.'?"
It would be naive to think that Paul, as he prepares for a 2016 presidential run, will pull off a mass conversion of Republicans to his libertarianism. But the senator, if he chooses, has the potential to build a force that could shake up politics -- not a third party but perhaps an informal coalition that occupies a space between religious conservatives and tax-and-spend liberals.
Paul won't get far if he persists with the foreign policy he laid out earlier this year at the Heritage Foundation; he describes himself as a "realist," but his form of realism might have sounded good to Senate Republicans in the 1930s. And, like his father, he makes politically expedient exceptions to his libertarianism; last week he introduced the Life at Conception Act, which would effectively outlaw abortion.
Still, his message has the power of the early tea party's theme before the movement was hijacked by religious and corporate interests. And it is powerful enough to have Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, fearing the junior senator from his home state. "Rand reminded the world that politics isn't just about tactics," McConnell gushed at CPAC, praising the filibuster he belatedly supported. "It's about standing up for your values and your principles. It's about courage. ... It was truly inspiring."
But will McConnell be inspired by the principles Paul advocated last week? That's when Paul told reporters, in a session hosted by National Review, that even though he supports the "historical definition" of marriage, "I'm not for limiting contracts between adults." He floated an idea "to make the tax code more neutral, where it doesn't mention the word marriage."
And will McConnell praise the courage and values Paul showed Tuesday, when he proposed legal status for illegal immigrants? Paul outlined a probationary system under which they could "get in line" for citizenship.
Paul said that Republicans, in "our zeal for border control," have "sometimes obscured our respect and admiration for immigrants." This was similar to his CPAC speech, in which he charged that "the GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered."
It's not yet clear how dedicated Paul really is to moss removal. But as long as he's scrubbing, I'll Stand with Rand.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.
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