The tattooed and pierced longhairs never showed up to see Senator Rand Paul speak with students at the University of South Carolina in Columbia last month. Those in attendance drew instead from the preppy set, with brushed bangs, blue blazers and proper hemlines, some wearing sunglasses on neck straps like jock jewelry. They mostly hailed from college Republican circles, and the room where they gathered, a wood-stained memorial to the state’s old power structure, was named for the politician who led the fight to protect school segregation in the 1960s.
You could call them activists, even rebels in their way. But this was not a gathering of losers and outcasts. Paul knew this. And that was the whole point he wanted to make. The freaks, the geeks, the oddballs–they mattered too, even here. “I tell people the Bill of Rights isn’t for the high school quarterback or the prom queen,” he said, pacing with a microphone, in blue jeans and cowboy boots he’d borrowed from his brother. “The Bill of Rights is for those who are unpopular.”
Those were the ones who needed to be protected, he went on, from government’s attempts to collect their phone records, to confiscate their property without charges, to throw them in jail without a day in court. He mentioned slavery, Japanese-American internment and America’s history of anti-Semitism. He even name-checked Richard Jewell, the Georgian falsely accused of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing, who was considered suspicious in part because he lived an introverted life. “My goodness, if that was the prerequisite for being arrested, then a lot of people would be arrested,” he said.
Paul is 51 years old, but if you worked a dim liquor-store countertop you still might card him. His stature is slight, his hair often askew and his dress more collegiate than senatorial–button-down collars, shirts with embroidered ponies and shields. He spoke to the crowd in a patient drawl–Kentucky by way of Texas–with the enthusiasm of a graduate student in the early rapture of ideas.
By all appearances, the kids were eating it up. The buzz-cut, redheaded sophomore in the front row, Chris Wolfe, had been glued to the Senator ever since the spring of 2013, when he tried to watch C-SPAN for the entirety of Paul’s 13-hour filibuster, a protest over the unlikely possibility that a President would send a drone to assassinate Americans on U.S. soil without trial. “I went to bed for four hours,” Wolfe said. “That was it.”
It would be one thing if Paul had stopped at Jewell, having injected a bit of counterculture sympathy into dorm-room debates. But his mission these days is far more consequential. This was South Carolina, after all, an early presidential-primary state that Paul happens to have visited more in the past couple years than any other likely Republican candidate. And his pitch was not just that America needs to think more about the freaks and geeks. He was arguing that the Republican Party, with its back against a demographic cliff, needs them too and that he is uniquely suited to play matchmaker.
“If we want a big party, then the party has to look like the rest of America,” he said, repeating a line he now uses across the country. “And that means with earrings, without earrings. With tattoos, without tattoos. With ponytails, without ponytails.”
American politics is a craft of competitive storytelling, and the story almost never changes. You probably already know what part you play–red, blue or sick of it all. Government is mostly bad or mostly good. The free market is either perverse or righteous. The art of presidential campaigns is to manipulate these notions with a stock set of characters and clichés, allowing only slight variations, enough to impart authenticity without putting at risk the basic two-party math.
Both sides play by the rules. Republican candidates always “stand up” for their beliefs and evoke the glories of the past, which since Richard Nixon has meant law and order, a strong military, rural values, the straight and narrow. Democrats care, and embrace the promise of the future, which means championing the working guy, civil rights and big-city elitism. You can draw a straight line between Jimmy Carter’s 1976 “A Leader, for a Change,” Bill Clinton’s 1992 “Change vs. More of the Same” and Barack Obama’s “Change You Can Believe In” in 2008. The entirety of Mitt Romney’s two campaigns for President could be summarized as a clumsy attempt to bottle and sell a memory of Ronald Reagan.
This is the context you need to understand the radical ambition of Randal Howard Paul. A Congressman’s son by birth and an ophthalmologist by training, he was elected by a Tea Party twister in 2010 as a purist from Kentucky sent to make trouble for Republicans too comfy with spending and debt. For the first year, that was the role he played, putting forward a budget that would cut a half-trillion dollars in 12 months, including more than a third of the funding for the State Department and 1 in 10 dollars for military personnel, procurement and operations, while effectively shutting down the departments of Education, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, and Commerce.
Then he started selling himself as something else as well: not just a budget cutter but also a visionary determined to reinvent the conservative Republican story line. At the University of California, Berkeley, after Edward Snowden leaked the nation’s surveillance secrets, Paul called the U.S. spymasters “drunk with power” instead of focusing on condemnation of the crime. When Ferguson, Mo., filled with fury and tear gas, he called for demilitarizing police and said race clearly skews the application of criminal justice.
He helped lead Republicans in opposition to President Obama’s 2013 request to bomb Syria as punishment for using chemical weapons and supports giving legal work status (and eventual citizenship) to undocumented immigrants in the U.S., as long as the border is first secured and fair-wage rules favored by unions are undone. He opposes longtime Republican efforts to limit ballot access and calls for nonviolent felons to have their voting rights returned after their sentences are served. With each of these positions, he is trying to scramble the math and broaden his party’s appeal, all the while causing headaches for the political consultants preparing for another chaotic Republican nomination fight.
But here’s what matters the most: rather than getting laughed off the stage, he has been embraced, if gingerly, by many in his party. They see the same polls he does, which show the emerging demographics, the young minorities, the urban shifting away from older generations and embracing of more libertarian views on privacy, drug sentencing and foreign intervention. His filibuster over drone law was joined by 13 Republican colleagues. He got 30 co-sponsors for his bill to audit the Federal Reserve, which the House passed 333 to 92.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus went on the road with Paul and discovered that the young Senator was effective at impressing both high-dollar donors at fundraisers and new crowds not partial to Republican speakers. The Obama White House also took notice. “He is the only Republican who seems to know about what their long-term structural problems are,” says Obama message strategist Dan Pfeiffer. “I think it’s a little bit of a warning sign to Democrats.”
In the near vacuum of the prepresidential season, he has emerged from the Tea Party furies to become one of the nation’s most influential Republican leaders. “He has changed the Republican Party more than any other Republican in the Obama years,” says Grover Norquist, one of the nation’s most influential conservative activists. “The question to ask is, How come he has been at the center of almost every interesting new idea in the last five years?”
A Father’s Son
The answer lies, as much as anywhere, in Paul’s past, which does not follow the traditional Republican story line either. He came to the game by way of his father Ron, the perennial presidential candidate and Republican iconoclast. The elder Dr. Paul was always more prophet than politician, a hero for the motivated fringe, outraged over the bipartisan consensus for war and wary of the Fed’s monetary dark magic. His followers spied and highlighted the word love spelled backward in the slogan “Ron Paul rEVOLution” and rented blimps to spread the message in the sky.
Like his father, Rand had started his career as a physician after attending Duke University School of Medicine, and he had thought of returning to Texas to start in politics late in life. But events–including his marriage to his wife Kelley, who was born in Kentucky–spun his compass and accelerated his calendar. It was for his father that Rand first stepped onstage, at a 2007 event in Boston’s Faneuil Hall. “In these hallowed halls,” Rand told the cheering crowd at perhaps the first Tea Party gathering of this century, “Samuel Adams once said, ‘It does not take a majority to prevail. It takes an irate, tireless minority keen on setting brushfires of the mind.'”
There is no historical evidence that Adams, an 18th century rabble rouser, ever spoke or wrote those words, which reek of 20th century pop psychology, though Google and a few recent trade books will tell you otherwise. But for Paul it was a perfect thesis on which to chart his course. The father started the brushfire. The son, not content with blimps, wanted to see if he could prevail.
To this day, Rand will tell people that he has no interest in running for President as a continuation of his father’s campaign, since he would be sure to lose. “The whole purpose to Ron was to try to tell the truth,” explains Jesse Benton, a former campaign manager for both father and son who married Ron Paul’s granddaughter. “Rand has always seen fixing problems and achieving solutions as very important.”
Like another recent dynastic heir from Texas, Rand doesn’t like to talk about his father as he starts his run, and his staff will warn reporters that he might end an interview if the subject of the Old Man is raised. But Rand learned to think about politics at his dad’s knee and still trumpets the same Ayn Rand texts, the same minimalist vision of constitutional power and the same Austrian economic theorists, who cast the federal manipulation of interest rates, a core precept of the modern financial system, as an invitation to financial calamity.
It is the differences that are telling now. At a family Christmas gathering in 2011, Benton remembers a “good old knockdown, drag-out father-son argument” about whether Army Private Bradley Manning should be considered a traitor for uploading gigabytes’ worth of classified documents to WikiLeaks. The father thought not; the son sided with maintaining the rule of law. More recently, they have parted ways on everything from earmarks (Rand opposes them) to economic sanctions on Iran (which Rand supports).
Where the father was often clumsy, Rand can be adroit. In four years in the Senate, he has proved himself an able knife fighter, eager to insert himself with a few choice words into just about any debate. He has been pushing party leader Mitch McConnell to appoint a Republican press secretary for Congress, who could counter the daily White House briefings with briefings of his own. “Can you imagine if a whole ship full of our soldiers catch Ebola?” he asked in a recent talk-radio interview, words that quickly went viral, despite their distant probability. At the urging of his wife, he has raised Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions repeatedly, calling the former President a “sexual predator.” Last month, in a speech to oppose the U.S. training of foreign ground troops in Syria, he hollered, “What we need is someone to shout, ‘War, war, what are we fighting for?'” A Republican had paraphrased a 1960s protest song from the floor of the Senate.
The Fine Print
I first met Paul in his suite on Capitol Hill, at a conference table flanked by two oil paintings, one of Rand and one of Ron, hung to be looking at each other. The Senator had just a few minutes between meetings, and he was, as is his habit, wary of yet another reporter coming to poke and prod at the meaning of his political rise. “Most of the bad stuff has been written. Could we try to have one with the good?” he asked after sitting down.
His jet-rocket rise has made him something of a cynic about the political process and the media. Part of this is just common sense; the process is crooked and vicious. But part of it arises from his particular situation. He is a candidate a bit unhinged from history, and his meaning is easily mistaken. Shortly after winning the Senate primary in Kentucky, he agreed to an appearance on MSNBC, only to find himself under fire from Rachel Maddow, a past supporter, for his opposition to the part of the 1965 Civil Rights Act that imposed antidiscrimination rules on private businesses.
Paul says his position has nothing to do with his fierce opposition to racism; instead it reflects his view of the limited role government should play in private business. But for Maddow and other liberals, it was a chance to tar him as another Southern politician dog-whistling to angry whites. “You have a tendency when you are not in politics to be a little bit philosophical,” explains Doug Stafford, Rand’s top strategist, when asked about the Maddow episode. “He has learned that that is not the best idea.” Now, if asked, Paul will just say he supports and would have voted for the Civil Rights Act, full stop.
It is a measure of his caution that his positions now take several sentences to explain. He will not say whether he supports bombing Iran if Tehran acquires a nuclear weapon, but also supports sanctions policies to try to prevent that from ever happening. He is against marijuana legalization even as he fights to end prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. He opposed limits on campaign donations but supports a plan to bar federal contractors from donating to politics. He opposes gay marriage but also opposes a constitutional amendment to define marriage, saying that states and Congress should pursue an extensive strategy of decoupling all government benefits from marriage so a ban might pass court scrutiny.
When I asked what he thought of a recent court ruling in North Carolina that reinstated same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting, he began by saying, “This is where it gets confusing.” If he voted in the state legislature, he would have opposed new voting restrictions since he wants more people to vote, not fewer. But he also doesn’t think courts should be overturning the law. “You can see how the story can be written the wrong way,” he said.
Nowhere has this complexity been more apparent than in his views on foreign intervention. Over the past year, he has created a kitchen cabinet of foreign policy experts to educate him on the intricacies of statecraft and war. “Intrinsically he is a libertarian, and then he moves on from there,” says former Bush State Department official Lorne Craner, one of the core members of the group. “If the facts don’t fit the ideology, he doesn’t say there is something wrong with the facts.”
In the past, Paul went so far as to argue that former Vice President Dick Cheney wanted to invade Iraq to make money for his former company, Halliburton. Now he travels the country arguing that U.S. attempts to topple dictators in the Middle East have all led to worse outcomes, but he also sponsored a bill to strip Egypt of foreign aid after the government cracked down on protesters. After once supporting a plan to cut all foreign aid, he now says he wants to gradually wind down aid for close allies like Israel. He has also come around to supporting the U.S. bombing campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, after initially saying he didn’t see much of a threat. “I think the facts became more apparent that we probably were at risk,” Paul says, explaining his change. “It doesn’t mean you give up your principles of thinking war is the last resort.”
Paul is far from a natural on the stump: he often fails to make eye contact with people he meets, and he has a forced photo-line smile that involves jutting out his bottom teeth like a kid in a family picture. He also has a tendency to evade questions when he senses a confrontation. After an event with the county GOP in Myrtle Beach, S.C., he was mobbed by party members wanting to test his views. Asked about immigration, he said, “It’s a large issue, but I think the bottom line is you have to seal the border first.” Asked about Social Security, he said, “We’re going to have to reform it in order to save it.” Then, before the voters could get any clarity, his staff ushered him from the room.
But it would be wrong to call him conflict-averse. In mid-October, Paul traveled to Ferguson to meet with leaders of the NAACP and Urban League amid the ongoing protests over the killing of an unarmed black student named Michael Brown by a white police officer. No other presidential candidate has done this, and it is hard to imagine any other Republican trying at this point without its looking like an attempt to imitate Paul.
The Missouri GOP’s executive director, Matt Willis, has called a voter-registration booth set up near where Brown was shot “not only disgusting but completely inappropriate.” But Paul told the community leaders that boosting voter turnout was the quickest way to address their local concerns, like getting a new sheriff in office. He also said that he would support increasing social spending in urban areas for federal programs like job training and that he would pay for it with savings from reductions in jail terms for nonviolent drug crimes.
The leaders were glad to see him and praised his openness, but there was no indication that he left any converts in his wake. “His policies and things that he stands for cut the education budget and the social-spending-and-jobs effort,” said John Gaskin II, who runs development for a local charter school. “He is not for the Affordable Care Act.”
As Paul drove from the event to board a private plane back to Kentucky, I asked him about this kink in his political strategy. Polls do show young and minority voters are more likely to support many libertarian social views. But the same polls show millennials and minorities are among the most likely to say they want government to do more, not less.
His answer was a study in nuance, and ambition. “I have said and I will continue to say that we shouldn’t cut one penny from the safety net until we eliminate every penny of corporate welfare,” he said, before going on to describe all the ways Republicans need to improve their messaging to working-class communities. “It doesn’t mean that I won’t say the things I have said, which is that assistance needs to be temporary and the goals should be work, not permanent assistance.”
It was a perfect encapsulation of Paul’s thinking. He wasn’t going to give up his principles, but he still thought he could break through with a careful message. In the current political conversation, it’s not an easy sale to make. But then Paul isn’t trying to win in that conversation. His plan is to create something new.
This appears in the October 27, 2014 issue of TIME.