Just like Jeb Bush, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is a legacy candidate for president. He has hoped to hold the libertarian political base of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and expand its appeal within the Republican Party and with the broader electorate.
In the wake of Mitt Romney's 2012 defeat, Paul initially garnered considerable attention in the Senate. In the name of privacy, he battled the Obama administration over national security surveillance practices. In the name of fairness, he reached out to African-Americans and criticized "big government" police practices in poor communities.
Yet Paul has struggled for traction on the 2016 campaign trail. He has drawn fire from some libertarians for seeming to grow more hawkish as the threat from the Islamic State group in the Middle East loomed larger. While he vows to shake up Washington and junk the IRS code in favor of a 14.5 percent flat tax, he has watched iconoclastic candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson, neither of whom has held elective office, seize headlines and top positions in Republican polls.
Paul sat down to discuss the campaign with me at a Washington restaurant. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.
HARWOOD: I was talking to one of your colleagues, who said you've gotten yourself into a no-man's land between the libertarian movement and your party. The climate changed, and you got a little more hawkish, and so people thought you weren't following the nonintervention line. And unlike Ted Cruz, you're not willing to burn down the Capitol.
PAUL: I don't think that's actually true. I think if you look at my performance and strength in a general election, we're actually stronger than any other candidate, and stronger than we've ever been. You've got to get through a primary to get to a general election. But I think I attract people who are independent more so than any other candidate. In fact, when they polled me against Hillary Clinton in five battleground states won by President Obama, I'm actually able to beat her in all of these battleground states.
I don't think anyone questions that I'm the least likely of all the candidates to take us to war. I also have been the biggest critic of our foreign policy, in the sense that, both under President Obama and under the previous president, we've done things, interventions, that have led to untoward results. For example, why are we bombing anything in Afghanistan? What is the mission and why are we there? The right, the neo-cons, complain, "Well, President Obama's not doing enough." And my complaint is, "Why are we still there at all? Why are we involved with a war in Afghanistan when we've put more money into Afghanistan than the entire Marshall Plan?"
I think the difference between (Cruz) and I is not necessarily in resolve towards opposing either leadership or what goes on. Because I've opposed every spending bill. There is a difference, somewhat, in attitude and how I treat others. I don't think that it's appropriate to use the Senate floor to call someone a liar. And while I've had my disagreements, I try to keep it on a more gentlemanly exchange of ideas.
Right now, neither him or myself have been able to win victories. What we've been able to do is to try to point out, and I think the public is siding with those of us who want Congress to control the power of the purse — not to give up our power of the purse and just say, "Oh, well. We can't do anything."