POLITICS
07/12/2013 08:27 am ET

Rand Paul Torn Between Tea Party Fire, White House Dreams

WASHINGTON -- In one 35-minute interview this week, there were two Rand Pauls: Tea Party Rand, firing his libertarian guns, and rising Republican Rand, gingerly accommodating himself to the GOP establishment.

Tea Party Rand isn't sure Edward Snowden can get a fair trial in the United States. GOP Rand thinks it's "none of our damn business" where Israelis build new neighborhoods near Jerusalem.

If Rand Paul were a dog, he'd be a terrier: taut, feisty, determined, diminutive, with tightly curled hair. His eyes are fastened on a juicy bone: the presidency.

At a time when voters are fed up with Washington, the freshman senator from Kentucky sees what he considers his main chance -- to sell himself as a tea party Republican, a permanent political outsider who nevertheless knows enough about government to radically cut its size, breadth and intrusiveness.

So Rand Paul in the summer of 2013 is toggling between pure tea party libertarianism and carefully calibrated appeals to the GOP establishment that he ran against in 2010, but now needs to pacify, impress or, at the very least, reassure.

Tea Party Rand emerged in response to a question about the fugitive National Security Agency leaker. When I asked whether he thought Snowden could be treated fairly by U.S. courts, Paul demurred -- a remarkably skeptical non-answer for a leader of the federal government.

"I don't know," the senator said. "I think the thing is, they've accused him under the Espionage Act, and I think he would probably face life imprisonment, would be my guess."

I repeated the question. Another demurral.

"I think the best person to ask -- because I don't think I can give you an answer -- is Daniel Ellsberg," Paul said. "He wrote a reasonable article about this, talking about how America is a little different now" than it was in 1971, when Ellsberg was prosecuted for leaking the Pentagon Papers.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Ellsberg praised Snowden's decision not to return to the United States. Ellsberg argued that the fugitive would face lengthy solitary confinement awaiting a trial in which he could not question government conduct that was once -- but no longer -- seen as illegal.

The other Rand Paul, the one making strategic adjustments as he rises, emerged in answer to questions about Israel and the close U.S.-Israel relationship.

Supporters of Israel, a powerful force within the GOP, are deeply suspicious of Rand's father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. He sought to abolish all foreign aid immediately, including to Israel, and was critical of many policies and actions of the Jewish state.

His son is trying hard to escape that shadow, traveling to Israel earlier this year and reaching out to various pro-Israel groups. "He's made a real effort, and I don't think he has the visceral dislike of Israel his father did," said Matt Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Rand Paul, unlike his father, declares that we should cut foreign aid first to those countries where citizens are "burning our flag." "I don't think you will meet anyone in Israel who will ever burn the American flag," he said.

Paul was vague when asked about the right of Jews to a homeland in Palestine.

"The reason why I am being careful is because what is Palestine?" he said. "What are you talking about? Are you saying the whole country over there? Is Israel squatting on 'Palestine'? Are you talking about the West Bank? Are you talking about Gaza? In this business, sometimes it's important to be careful."

Yet he also said it's up to the Israelis and Palestinians themselves to decide these questions, and "those in Israel have a right to make decisions concerning the sovereignty of their own country."

"The mistake we've made is that we are a little too bossy," Paul continued. "We know what's best for everybody.

"I actually take this as being a very pro-Israel position. The neighborhoods around Jerusalem, for example: You've got Hillary Clinton, you've got Joe Biden, you've for the president telling them [Israel] that they can't build in certain neighborhoods. It's none of our damned business where they build neighborhoods over there."

Paul is looking for balance elsewhere as he tries to combine tea party and GOP.

He became a national sensation by filibustering against the use of drones, but Paul is toning down his rhetoric -- or at least his visibility -- on the rise of the Surveillance State.

His reasoning is simple enough and surprisingly realpolitik: Everyone is against him. He got a talking-to by his own party leaders, and most Democrats are loath to criticize President Barack Obama on the issue.

"There is no sentiment or will here on either side," he said. "Like I say, there's no stronger bipartisan consensus than there is on spying and military issues."

On the other hand, he has no use for those who would try to write a new preclearance formula into the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court struck down the old one.

"There was a need for the Voting Rights Act," Paul said. "With regard to whether or not we should have federal intervention now in voting, the statistics are indisputable: Blacks are voting in higher percentages than whites. There is no uniform, legal or somehow organized animus to prevent people from voting anymore. So I think the Supreme Court had a point."

Those who want to write a new formula, he said, would be doing so only for "demagogue reasons."

Asked whether he would choose to carry a tea party flag or a Republican flag if he could have only one, Paul answered, "An American flag."

"I am part of the Republican Party. It's 'we,' not 'they.' And I see that we are having a great deal of influence within it. And we want it to be the freedom-loving party that attracts youth to it," he said.

"The president has dropped 20 points with young people in the last month," said Paul, apparently referring to a CNN/ORC International poll in June. "They see him as a hypocrite on the Internet and on his spying. And they are quick to leave him."

Even though he was practicing medicine only four years ago -- and previous held no public office -- Paul thinks he is ready to run for the presidency in 2016.

People said similar things about Obama, another relative novice, he pointed out.

"I would stack up the background of being an ophthalmologist with a community organizer any day," Paul said.

Caitlin MacNeal contributed reporting.

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