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The (Sort of) Libertarian

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Rand Paul has a knack for good theater.

Earlier this month the Kentucky Republican took his libertarian brand of conservatism to one of the most liberal enclaves in America — the University of California, Berkeley.

He survived.

The University of California is noted for its liberalism; it was a bastion of student radicalism in the 1960s. Berkeley is across the bay from San Francisco, whose politics it mirrors.

Paul appealed to the students in his audience, attacking the government for its surveillance programs. “I believe what you do on a cellphone is none of their damn business,” he said, to applause.

From the title of his talk — “The N.S.A. vs. Your Privacy” — to his attire — baggy jeans, an oxford shirt with a red tie, and cowboy boots — Paul tailored his appearance to broaden his appeal, trying to move from the typical older and whiter audience to a younger, hipper assemblage that normally does not vote Republican.

Even his analogies spoke the language of youth. “Remember when Domino’s admitted they had bad crust?” he asked, speaking of the need for the Republican Party to change. “We need a different kind of party,” he said. Republicans “have to either evolve, adapt, or die.”

But Paul is a Republican, after all, so he could not pass up an opportunity to criticize President Obama. Nor could he resist injecting race into his discussion. “I find it ironic that the first African-American president has without compunction allowed this vast exercise of raw power by the N.S.A.,” Paul said. “Certainly J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal spying on Martin Luther King and others in the civil rights movement should give us all pause. Now if President Obama were here, he would say he’s not J. Edgar Hoover, which is certainly true. But power must be restrained because no one knows who will next hold that power.”

Paul is correct that power must be curbed because sometimes the good guys don’t win. And his libertarian message that U.S. spy agencies are ignoring the Fourth Amendment and his warning of the danger of drones resonates beyond college campuses.

But is Paul a consistent libertarian? “I am 100% pro-life. I believe life begins at conception and that abortion takes the life of an innocent human being,” Paul says on his Senate Web site. “It is the duty of our government to protect this life as a right guaranteed under the Constitution… It is unconscionable that government would facilitate the taking of innocent life. I have stated many times that I will always support legislation that would end abortion or lead us in the direction of ending abortion.”

Paul has compared same-sex marriage with polygamy and bestiality, later calling those remarks jokes. The best the libertarian champion could come up with on the issue of gay marriage is that Republicans need to “agree to disagree.” He was less forthcoming on a federal judge’s ruling directing Kentucky to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. “I believe in the historic and religious definition of marriage,” he said. “I also believe this power belongs to the states and the people, not the federal government. It is illegitimate for the federal courts to intrude here.”

When in doubt, make it a states’ rights issue.

Progressives should applaud Paul and work with him when he challenges government encroachment into our private lives and when he opposes the unbridled use of drones. But let’s be careful of one thing: On social issues, Rand Paul is a conservative Republican who is gearing up for a likely run for the White House. He knows better than to try to win GOP primaries in Iowa and South Carolina on a strictly libertarian platform opposing government intrusion into the bedroom.

Fortunately for Paul’s image as of now, none of the students at Berkeley asked him the tough questions on gay marriage and abortion.

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