Rand Paul gets a standing O at Berkeley

The San Jose Mercury News tries to make sense of the wildly enthusiastic reaction Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) – currently the leading GOP candidate for President in 2016 in most polls, for you super-early political horse-race aficionados – received at the Berkeley Forum on Wednesday:

Nobody should be surprised that Rand Paul got so warm a welcome Wednesday, even in a city whose name is often preceded in conversation by “The People’s Republic of…”

After all, the junior U.S. Senator from Kentucky and likely contender for 2016’s Republican presidential nomination is following in his father’s footsteps by drawing crowds of enthusiastic young followers, particularly on college campuses, wherever he goes.

And his policies — particularly criticizing government surveillance programs, avoiding military actions that aren’t vital to national security, and rethinking the war on drugs — draw voters from across the spectrum, including some of Berkeley’s famed lefties.

“He’s a serious contender,” said Bruce Cain, a political expert who directs Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West. “He can come to the Bay Area and plausibly look for money, which is not the case with Sarah Palin or some of the other people on the right.”

Sarah Palin is the first name that pops into the mind of a Stanford political expert, with reference to the 2016 contest?  Well, that’s a tough break for Mrs. Palin, who had better cancel her fundraising swing through the Bay Area before her plane tickets become non-refundable.

Bill Clinton’s Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, was on hand as a professor from UC-Berkeley, and did a good job of summing up the significance of the event: “There are not too many people who can get a standing ovation at CPAC and a standing ovation at Berkeley.”

Senator Paul’s full speech is below, followed by a question-and-answer session:

Paul touches on many of the same themes he explored in his CPAC speech (complete with the same Pink Floyd lyrics!)  He also made sure to include the newfound aversion to the Surveillance State expressed by one of its strongest defenders, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).  It’s all fun and games until the Ruling Class glances out their windows and sees drones spying on them.  For his next performance, Paul should give a speech on fiscal responsibility in Missouri and quote Senator Claire McCaskill’s sudden discovery that the $17 trillion debt she voted for is “irresponsible.”

The Mercury News gives Rand Paul credit for holding much of the youth enthusiasm generated by his father Ron, but it seems like Rand’s appeal is reaching beyond the energetic young Paulite base.  Not to start any fights at the next Paul family picnic, but I don’t think Ron could have done quite this well at Berkeley in his prime.  That’s partially a result of changing circumstances, of course, ranging from growing public disillusionment with the competence of the Leviathan State, to the current fears about getting spied upon by one of Leviathan’s many electronic eyes.

In fact, rather than pigeon-holing himself as the guy who complains about the NSA all the time, Paul is shaping the Surveillance State into the tip of a broader critique against Big Government.  You might say he’s turned it into a wedge issue for Democrats, particularly young ones.  He’s doing a great job of teaching them the importance of inalienable rights – privacy, dignity, and the presumption of innocence.  There are some other inalienable rights to be discussed, once Paul has young people on board with those.

A big State is, inevitably, a nosy State; control requires information.  As power grows, the spheres of both liberty and privacy collapse in tandem.  The surveillance issue gives Paul a great opening to talk about the many other dangers of centralized power… increasingly centralized in one branch of the government, and vested in bureaucratic organisms even the unitary President Obama claims he cannot understand or control.

“If the CIA is spying on Congress, who exactly can, or will, stop them?” Paul asked the Berkeley crowd.  “I look into the eyes of Senators, and I think I see real fear.  Maybe it’s just my imagination, but I think I perceive fear of an intelligence community that’s drunk with power – unrepentant, and un-inclined to relinquish power.  I’m honestly worried and concerned about who is, truly, in charge of our government.”

That’s a good question… and when it comes to getting drunk on power, there are plenty of all-night keggers going on at other agencies besides the CIA and NSA.  Who exactly can, or will, stop the IRS?  They’re looking pretty unrepentant and un-inclined to relinquish power over at the Department of Health and Human Services these days.

The relationship between information and control works both ways.  As Paul points out, effective congressional oversight is impossible when executive-branch agencies can justify lying to Congress.  How can the American people cast informed votes when they don’t know what their government is doing?   And while the big offenses against privacy and innocence described by Paul were undertaken in the name of national security, it should be remembered that Big Government has plenty of other stated interests in making its child-citizens feel “secure” against all sorts of “threats.”  If you want to be taken care of, you must consent to being controlled, and before the government can tell you what to do, they have to know what you’re already doing.

One of the ways Paul tied these themes together was to describe a posture familiar to many in his audience: the vulnerable pose, hands above our heads, we must take when performing our walk-on parts in Airport Security Theater.  “Is this the posture of a free man?” he asked, quoting Harvard professor Noah Feldman.  “The question before us is, will we live as men and women, or will we cower and give up our liberty?  I, for one, will fight on because I think your rights are inalienable… inseparable… inextinguishable.”

That’s a very bold promise, made in service of a very big idea, which only begins with criticism of the broad-based surveillance that gives so many young people the creeps.  The big question in 2016 might be how far the audience that gave Rand Paul a standing ovation at Berkeley is willing to follow him, before they decide they don’t mind seeing some of their rights extinguished after all, in the service of some social crusade or other.