THE BLOG
02/28/2013 12:48 pm ET | Updated Apr 30, 2013

Judging Rand Paul: Not Just the Distance of the Apple From the Tree

The greatest ideological achievement of Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Prime Minster of Britain from 1979 to 1990, was arguably not the redefinition of the right of British politics, but the redefinition of its left, and therewith, its middle. She has a legacy not because she destroyed her opponents or their political philosophies, but because her practical success as a politician forced them to incorporate much of hers.

With that in mind, Rand Paul's efforts as both a libertarian Republican and a constitutional conservative -- both phrases he used to describe himself in a recent interview with Sean Hannity -- are more interesting, and likely to be more effective, than many have yet given him credit for.

At the end of the interview, Hannity -- a conservative host with an overwhelmingly conservative audience, including plenty of dyed-in-the-wool self-identified Republican voters (and that means many recent Romney voters) noted that Rand Paul is one of the "four strong conservative voices" in the Senate that he looks to "to bring sanity back to Washington." He didn't call Rand, "one of the four libertarian voices" in the Senate, and yet the four Senators he mentioned (Paul, Lee, Cruz and Rubio) are without much doubt the most pro-liberty members of that house).

And what "strong conservative" views did Rand Paul proceed to elucidate as Hannity endorsed his conservative credentials? They were as follows.

The need to audit the Pentagon, the need for term limits, the GOP's need to win in New England and on the west coast, the fact that he (Rand) is a libertarian Republican, which approximates to a constitutional conservative, the need for the GOP to appeal to Independents, recognition that America doesn't need to be involved in every war around the world, the fact that people shouldn't be locked up for 20 years for taking drugs, and the need to embrace immigrants.

This is not your grandfather's conservatism. But it is slowly looking more like it might become Hannity's -- and (much more importantly) your grandson's.

Take note. Here is an established conservative host in mainstream media recognizing as conservative the least neo-con version of that creed that has been heard from a Republican for decades. How far all this is from the only conservatism that was "licensed" by the GOP just a decade ago.

This is extremely important because, for good or ill, the labels that the mainstream media use -- and the way in which they use them -- set the concepts and parameters of popular political debate, and thereby, the "mainstream" range of political views of the majority of the electorate.

Moreover, people are much more willing to change their views than their political identities or labels or "teams." Hence, converting 100 million self-identified conservatives to another philosophy (such as libertarian) or Republicans to another party is much harder than nudging the definition of "conservative" or the platform of the GOP over time. In fact, not only does such evolution of the meaning of political terms and philosophies have precedent: given enough time, it is inevitable.

So whether particular members of the liberty movement think that the GOP is a lost cause (very few things ever are), it is not going away, and it will continue to dominate half of the political thinking of this nation for the foreseeable future. This brute fact presents members of the liberty movement with a choice between being subject to (victims of?) the evolution of the GOP (on the one hand) or the determinants of the direction of that evolution (on the other).

The fact that evolution has only a direction and not a destination provides a big clue to how we should best judge Rand's efforts. He will have failed if he does not move the GOP in the direction of liberty. He will have succeeded to the extent that he moves the party in that direction. To discount his efforts because he fails to meet a litmus test for political purity does not advance liberty as a practical reality. (Does anyone think that the Republicrats would have been half as effective at bringing our country into its current sorry state if they had held themselves to such standards of ideological purity?)

Some libertarians are calling out Rand for the subversion of libertarian ideas that they perceive derives from an instinct toward neoconservatism. Time will tell, and I expect it will prove them wrong. But what is already certain is that to take only that perspective is to choose not to see the very part of Rand's approach that is the most likely (by far) to bring about any practical improvement in American liberty: he is slowly redefining conservatism and Republicanism by packing more libertarian ingredients into the jars that bear those labels. (And it's the content of the jars -- and not their labels -- that matter.)

Those in the liberty movement who would not have any part of their philosophy peddled by this man whom they do not see as a true believer should ask whether, when Rand is fighting for just one of the things that they believe in, it would be better if he stopped? And if he were to stop, who (and in what position and party) would be more effective in doing liberty's work?. (The same question can be asked about any of the new breed of liberty-oriented Republicans on Capitol Hill.)

If Rand is in any way enabling conservatives to shift their views without changing their labels , then he may yet become as important for the popular acceptance of whichever version of libertarianism he holds as was his father. That rather large claim rests on the possibility that most of those who were won over by Ron Paul's wonderful message of liberty (this writer included) were willing and able to undergo a large and conscious shift in political identity, but whereas we count in the millions, there are tens of millions who will come with us only slowly and only if we don't challenge their political identity - and that "conservative" label with which, for reasons or culture, upbringing or religion etc., they feel comfortable .

As the Bard said, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Two other factors make Rand worth watching.

The first is the simple fact that he has started very early for a 2016 run. He has been quietly garnering support from various groups across a wide ideological spectrum (from true conservatives to true libertarians). Getting ahead of the campaigning curve while keeping on the right side of media that still have not understood what the response to Ron Paul last year means for this country, helps to protect the GOP against having the media pick another candidate in 2016 who doesn't have the Big Three Ps for victory -- principles, pragmatism and personality.

The second is a little more subtle -- and ironic. If Rand closes in on a 2016 race facing vocal criticism from the libertarian purists who fear the apple has fallen too far from the tree, he may well be seen as less alien to the party than his father (which helps in winning the party's nomination), and more at one with the broader Republican base (which helps in winning the presidency). In other words, those who would make the perfect the enemy of the good might help focus everyone else on what "the good" really is -- and American liberty could be the better for it.

We shall see.

But for now, let's not judge Rand's contribution to liberty just by debating how far the apple fell from the tree: let's watch what grows from its seeds.