Rand Paul at CPAC: "The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered"

If you can’t watch it all, pick it up at 16:00 as the big call for a new Republican Party begins. Very rarely do CPAC speeches surprise but Paul’s had a chance just because one never knows where his ongoing libertarian/conservative straddle might take him. An overt pitch to leave marijuana policy to the states? A reprise of what he told National Review two days ago about removing marriage from the tax code? Something about balancing the budget partly by adopting a more “modest” foreign policy? There are elements of all of that here but by and large he sticks to three big themes. One: Civil liberties and limiting presidential power, which was largely a rehash of his drone filibuster. (“Stand With Rand” t-shirts were plentiful outside the hall, I’m told.) Pay attention to the applause lines during this part. He got some cheers, but the reaction at a libertarian/Ron Paul event would have been raucous.

Two: Less spending. Straightforward and familiar, replete with calls to abolish the Department of Education and scrap the income tax code for a flat tax. He adds some humor to it, though, which is not something the Pauls are known for. You can see he’s getting more comfortable as a retail politician. Also noteworthy is the big applause line of this section — a call to end foreign aid to countries that burn the American flag. That’s a textbook example of how Rand is a savvier politician than his dad even when they share the same goal. Paul senior’s isolationism is framed as retreat, a strategic response to “blowback” from enemies antagonized by America’s shameful aggression overseas. Paul junior’s is framed as a matter of national pride. Why send money to Islamist cretins in Egypt when they openly loathe our country? Advantage: Junior.

Three, the key bit: Reorienting the party to appeal to the “Facebook generation.” He’s not radically libertarian here — decriminalizing nonviolent drug use is about as “extreme” as it gets, and he gives that just one line in passing — but the bit at the very end about standing for liberty in the economic “and the personal sphere” is significant. He’s not ready to fully engage with social conservatives about what that might mean just yet, but it’s coming. Which of course is why he frames this section not by stating his own convictions but by referencing young voters: The only way he’s going to get traditionalists to bend a little on things like weed and gay marriage is to apply some demographic pressure. Even Marco Rubio, who’s positioning himself as the young traditionalist alternative, slyly endorsed a federalist approach to gay marriage today in his speech rather than an amendment to ban the practice outright. Both would-be nominees know that a winning platform will look different from Romney’s. The winner is the guy who finds the sweet spot between too much and not enough.

I’ll leave you with this, just to flesh out Paul’s point about the “stale and moss-covered”: “Rasmussen Reports reveals that 67 percent of likely GOP voters have a favorable opinion of the first-term Kentucky senator. Just 52 percent view McCain favorably, and of that just 16 percent call their opinion ‘very favorable,’ said the pollster.”