Rand Paul at Town Hall Seattle, August 26, 2015.
1. Seattle is not the friendliest territory for Republican presidential candidates. This was the first Republican rally either of us have ever attended inside Seattle city limits: in 2012 Romney was in Bellevue, Santorum was in Tacoma, Gingrich was in Federal Way, and Paul the elder was in SeaTac. And now, having seen the crowd Senator Rand Paul gathered in downtown Seattle, it’s clear why those campaigns chose non-Seattle locations. For one thing, nearly everyone in line at 7:30 seemed to be from somewhere else: Marysville, Redmond, Bremerton. For another thing, the Paul campaign couldn’t come close to filling Town Hall—campaign officials told Jim Brunner of the Seattle Times that they’d drawn a crowd of 700, but Paul later mentioned that there were 500 people in attendance, a much likelier total.
2. Privacy stole the show. For the most part, the (99 percent white) crowd at the rally was fairly groggy and subdued—understandable, perhaps, for a rally taking place at 8:30 in the morning. The only standing ovation Paul received was when he brought up the right to privacy. (This is to be expected in a tech-centric city like Seattle.) Perhaps the most rowdy moment of the event came when he reached into his pocket, held out his phone and proclaimed, “There is absolutely no reason why the government should be looking at your phone records.” A guy at the back promptly bellowed, “THAT’S RIGHT!”. The second-biggest applause line came when Paul said he wanted to stop the “billions” of Seattle’s tax dollars from going to Washington DC.
3. Paul railed against the GOP more than Dems. Paul placed blame on both parties for a “broken” Washington DC, telling the audience that “everyone in Washington ought to come home and we ought to start over.” But the majority of his contempt was aimed at the GOP establishment. He took shots at Christie (“a certain Governor from New Jersey”) on the matter of privacy and McCain (“the senator from Arizona”) on the war in Syria. He also called out Trump (“a guy with orange hair”), warning the audience that liberty-lovers could not let him “take over our party” because he’s not part of the Republican”intellectual tradition.” He claimed that the entire Republican Party had lost its way and that it was no longer “boldly for what it’s supposed to be for.” By this, he meant that Republicans “need to be the party of the entire Bill of Rights.”
4. Isolationism 101. Paul told the crowd, “If you’re eager for war there will always be a Bush or a Clinton for you.” He then proceeded to lay out an isolationist platform on foreign policy (even though he explicitly stated “this is not isolationism”). He focused primarily on the Middle East, where he argued that America shouldn’t be giving military aid to moderates in Syria. He also maintained we shouldn’t have waged “Hillary’s War in Libya”, because this act of gung-ho interventionism had unintentionally created a breeding ground for ISIS. In fact, he claimed that one-third of Libyans were now in support of ISIS. For the most part, his anti-war message fell flat. The audience couldn’t be bothered to clap on several occasions. It all seemed very banal.
5. The Rand Paul at this rally was the presidential candidate Democrats were worried about last year. Which means that the Rand Paul at Town Hall was not the same Rand Paul who’s been presenting at the Republican debate and in the media for the last few months. He talked about race in a mostly non-terrible way, bringing up “driving while black” and the Japanese internment. (Though he was tone-deaf in some ways, assuring the audience that you can be a minority not just by the color of your skin, but by “the shade of your ideology.”) And he’s basically right about the importance of civil liberties, although his Constitutional preaching, like his dad’s, can get pedantic and tiresome. His seemingly extemporaneous speaking style ranges on a scale from lecturing to scolding to sarcastic—exactly none of which are ideal for a presidential candidate. But on the issues, he didn’t sound at all like the other Republican candidates, which should work in his favor. (In a field that big, distinctive policy positions are a blessing.) It’s weird that when Paul talks to a mass-media audience he dials up the evangelical noise and dials down the talk about civil liberties; that obfuscation of his message is part of the reason why he’s been on the sidelines since he got into the presidential race.
6. Make no mistake: this was a libertarian rally. The people sitting next to us were proud libertarians first and Republicans second. (They seemed to indicate that Donald Trump was their second choice for president, because he would supposedly fill his administration with businesspeople. At least one of them was a big Glenn Beck fan, too.) It’s unclear if they understood that their libertarian beliefs only reinforce Republican trickle-down economics. Paul’s unspecific tax plan—eliminate the tax code and institute some basic tax you can fill out on a postcard—would greatly benefit the one percent and worsen income inequality. Out of the many issues he touched on, possibly the most untrue thing he said onstage at Town Hall was that he cared about poor people. Paul has adopted his dad’s claims of leading with reason, but he somehow can’t understand the simplest equation of them all: if you give money to the top one percent, they will only use that money to make more money. The trickling down of funds to the very poor will never come. You simply can’t care about the very poor in America and not want to address income inequality.
7. It was a terrible morning to glorify guns. At the exact same time that everyone on the internet was horrified by the latest in a seemingly unending string of mass shootings, Paul’s adulation of the 2nd amendment felt awkward and dripping with an unpleasant machismo. ( “If you doubt me on the 2nd Amendment, come into my house unannounced,” Paul warned as the room applauded the thought of Paul shooting another person to death.) Before Paul took the stage, local politician Elizabeth Scott was proudly introduced as a member of the NRA. Meanwhile, on Twitter, people were scrolling past auto-play videos filmed by a man as he murdered two innocent people in cold blood. For a candidate who repeatedly claims to be uniquely in touch with reality, Paul is surprisingly out-of-step with an America that overwhelmingly favors commonsense gun safety laws.