This week Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul became the second Republican to announce he’s running for president in 2016, and he’s being taken only a bit more seriously than never-gonna-happen Ted Cruz, who’s positioning himself for a lucrative career of paid speeches in which he sorrowfully tells sympathetic audiences, “Well, I tried to warn the American people this would happen” (“this” being whatever calamity is convenient). Paul is more about policy innovations—recalling Gary Hart, the Democrat who in 1984 perfected the strategy of coming thisclose to upsetting an establishment candidate. The strategy is to become a “new ideas” sensation for a few weeks before the media, embarrassed by the fuss it’s made, ridicules you for the phoniness of selling yourself as a “new ideas” candidate. Most people don’t think Paul will make it to the first stage.
Paul’s skepticism toward military aggression is probably enough to sink his candidacy, but the most intriguing part of his platform involves his skepticism toward mass incarceration in the United States. Writing for America in February, Denis J. Madden, the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, criticized “our system of sentencing and incarceration…[that] helps to create a class of citizens who have little hope of ever advancing beyond their dreadful way of life.” On his campaign website, Paul voices a similar concern, though with more of a nod toward the libertarian goal of lower government spending: “I have called for comprehensive reform measures to fix America’s broken criminal justice system, ease the burden on taxpayers, and break the cycle of incarceration for non-violent ex-offenders.”
Paul’s website highlights proposals that include giving judges the power to bypass minimum sentencing laws, reclassifying possession of “very small” amounts of certain drugs as a misdemeanor rather than a felony, and “remove the profit incentive police officers currently have to seize and forfeit property.”
Vox’s Dara Lind summarizes Paul’s efforts toward re-integrating ex-prisoners into society (and, again, reducing their burden on taxpayers): “Paul has introduced a bill that would allow people who have been convicted of nonviolent crimes to vote in elections for president and Congress after they’re released from prison. There are other members of Congress pushing to restore voting rights, but they’re basically all Democrats. And Paul and [Democratic Sen. Cory] Booker’s REDEEM Act would not only set out a process for ex-prisoners to ask to get their records sealed—which would likely make it much easier for them to get jobs—but would also allow federal low-level drug offenders to get food stamps and welfare benefits.”
Everyone who gives Paul even a shadow of a chance at winning Republican presidential primaries says that he must expand the electorate—in essence, bring out the hordes of young libertarians who are waiting for a candidate they can stomach. (The existence of this mighty maybe-I’ll-vote bloc cannot be disproven; if Paul fails, it will be because he betrayed libertarian principles.) Lind teases out another way Paul may attract new voters: “Paul has leaned into criminal justice reform as a civil rights issue. He’s used it as the centerpiece of speeches to the Urban League last summer (where he described students being arrested for “waiting while black”), and at historically black Bowie State University last month. This is a political strategy for Paul—but on behalf of his party as much as himself.… He’s making a concerted effort to get African Americans to take a second look at the Republican Party—through a lot of speeches, to be sure, but also through opening a Republican outreach office in a black neighborhood in Louisville.”
The possibility that Paul would get a higher percentage of the black vote than recent GOP nominees have does not help him much in Republican caucuses and primaries, which attract few non-white voters. (Few non-white voters live in Iowa and New Hampshire anyway.) So it will be interesting to see whether Paul stresses criminal-justice reform as we get closer to the first contests, especially if he sees a better chance to break out in New Hampshire by promising to slash the same food stamp and welfare programs that he feels shouldn’t discriminate against ex-prisoners. Another question: Will rivals like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker attack Paul’s reform ideas in debates, and how vigorously will he defend them? It’s distressingly easy to imagine, for example, all the other candidates on stage ridiculing the idea that ex-felons should have their voting rights restored.
We should also consider the idea that Paul is sincere in his proposals and will continue to pursue them after a failed presidential campaign. He is not giving up his Senate seat, instead trying to tweak Kentucky law so that he can run for re-election next year even as he makes a bid for the presidency. Presumably he sees some value in promoting criminal-justice reform even in one of the whitest and more rural states in America, and it’s true that reducing incarceration and re-integrating ex-offenders into society would benefit Kentucky as well as California or New York. Rand’s partnership with Cory Booker, an African-American Democrat from New Jersey, is also the kind of bipartisan effort that could result in progress after the circus of a presidential election.
Note: Rand Paul is untested in elections outside of Kentucky, but his father, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, ran strongest in rural areas when he ran for the GOP nomination in 2012. The map below, from the indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections shows town-by-town results for the New Hampshire primary. Paul won the towns in yellow, mostly in the sparser northern and western parts of the state; Mitt Romney won the towns in green, sweeping the most urbanized and most populous areas on the coast and on the Massachusetts border. (Most of the remaining towns were won by Jon Huntsman.) If Rand Paul has any chance of winning New Hampshire next year, he’ll have to go beyond his father’s crusty, small-town base and crack that belt of Boston exurbs.