Sen. Rand Paul’s scramble this week to clarify his remarks on whether drone killings should be allowed on American soil underscores a key challenge facing the ambitious Kentucky politician: translating his libertarian principles into clear policy positions.
Mr. Paul, a likely 2016 contender for the Republican presidential nomination, said Tuesday that “I don’t care” if drones are used to kill gun-toting liquor store thieves — a comment that sparked an outcry from some of the small-government advocates and strict constitutionalists who have championed the Kentuckian.
They dubbed him a “traitor” and wondered how he could be OK with the government targeting common criminals with drone strikes just weeks after arguing in his high-profile 13-hour filibuster earlier this year that “no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.”
Responding to the uproar, Mr. Paul issued a statement Tuesday night, saying he “left the mistaken impression that my position on drones had changed. … Let me be clear: it has not.”
“I think he was unclear, but I don’t think he really contradicted his prior view because I believe he said during the 13-hour filibuster that he, like almost anyone else, accepts that you can use force in the United States in response to an imminent threat,” Mr. Friedman said. “He was trying to show that he is not blindly opposed to the use of drone tech, but he stepped on his foot a little bit.”
Nick Gillespie, editor of Reason magazine and a leading libertarian commentator, said Mr. Paul’s off-the-cuff remark has been blown out of proportion. The senator, he said, like the public, is wrestling over the role that drones should play in public life.
“As a society when we are confronted with new technologies that are disruptive to settled categories, it takes a while for us to figure out,” Mr. Gillespie said. “I don’t think there is any reason to think that he is secretly trying to sidle up to the police state in any way, shape or form. That idea is ludicrous.”
Part of Mr. Paul’s problem is that he operated in the shadow of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, who garnered a loyal following of supporters during presidential bids in 2008 and 2012. In those campaigns, the senior Mr. Paul regularly accused both parties of trampling the U.S. Constitution in their conduct of the war on terrorism.
The Kentucky senator, who has to reach beyond his father’s libertarian base if he hopes to follow through on his own presidential ambitions, told Fox News on Tuesday that, “I have never argued against any technology being used when you have an imminent threat, an active crime going on.”
“If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and $50 in cash, I don’t care if a drone kills them or a policeman kills him,” he said. “But it is different if they want to come fly over your hot tub or your yard just because they want to do surveillance on everyone.”
While some accused him of waffling, Mr. Paul said his point has consistently been that “armed drones should … only be considered in extraordinary, lethal situations where there is an ongoing, imminent threat.”
He also shared that message in an interview with The Des Moines Register, the largest newspaper in Iowa, the state that kicks off the GOP nomination contest every four years.
Ford O’Connell, a GOP consultant, said this week’s episode serves as a reminder that “Paul’s biggest challenge going forward is marrying his constitutional libertarian philosophy with actual governing.”