Sen. Rand Paul urged members of the Kentucky Legislature on Wednesday to restore the voting rights of some nonviolent felons and said it is time for the nation to rethink the “war on drugs” — putting him in the middle of a couple of thorny debates that put him at odds with many traditional conservatives.
Time after time, Mr. Paul has marched into policy fights that don’t fit neatly into the left-right political paradigm that has dominated national politics for decades. And he has suggested the GOP should follow suit, warning that the national party must reinvent itself if it wants to win back the White House in his lifetime.
“The guy is serious about approaching politics from a fundamentally different perspective than establishment Republicans and Democrats,” said Nick Gillespie, editor in chief of Reason.com, the largest libertarian news website.
The establishments of both parties “are much more about controlling the apparatus of the state — and expanding it — to the benefit of their favored constituencies. Paul seems to be legitimately interested in reducing the size, scope, and spending of government across the board.”
Mr. Paul, a tea party favorite and son of former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, is among the rising Republican stars jockeying for position ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
Since the 2012 election, Mr. Paul has played up the idea that his libertarian brand of Republicanism can improve the party’s image — making it more appealing to young and minority voters and that that can help Republicans return to their winning ways in national elections.
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“I think Republicans will not win again in my lifetime unless they become a new GOP, a new Republican Party,” Mr. Paul said during a recent interview with The Blaze, a right-leaning website. “And it has to be a transformation. Not a little tweaking at the edges.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Paul told a state committee in Frankfort that restoring voting rights for nonviolent felons is a positive step toward changing the nation’s flawed “war on drugs,” which, he argued, has led to to disproportionate number of minorities being locked up and stuck in a cycle of poverty and crime.
For decades, Republicans have approached the issue from the perspective that being “tough on crime” is good and Democrats are not that. But Mr. Paul approached the issue from a different angle Wednesday.
“Most of us are Christians in this room,” Mr. Paul said. “This isn’t a religious exclusion or exercise that you have to be Christian, but most of us believe in redemption, most of us believe in a second chance. I think we should get a second chance to vote. But also to work. You want to keep people from committing crimes? Let ‘em work again.”
Mr. Paul testified on behalf of a proposed constitutional amendment, which would give Kentucky voters the chance to decide whether to restore voting rights for most ex-felons. The proposal, though, was amended to include mandatory five-year waiting period for felons and an exemption for those with multiple offenses.
“Both parties have had people opposed, and both parties have had people in favor of this,” Mr. Paul said. “Ultimately, some compromise will have to come out of this. As I have learned in my short time in politics, I don’t always get everything I want.”
Mr. Paul’s message has drawn the ire of some of the GOP’s old guard and defense-minded lawmakers, who warn that Mr. Paul’s “isolationist” views on issues of national security and foreign policy would make the nation less safe.
For his part, Mr. Paul denies the “isolationist” label, says he is a “realist” on foreign policy.
Social conservatives also have wondered whether Mr. Paul would go to bat for them when it comes to traditional family values.
Mr. Paul, meanwhile, has plowed ahead with his message, leading a 16-hour filibuster last year over the Obama administration’s drone policy and filing a class-action lawsuit last week against the NSA phone-record collection program.
Mr. Paul has said he thinks that marriage is the union of one man and one women, but that the issue should be left to the states to decide.
He also said that state should decided whether marijuana is legal — though he warned that smoking pot could shave points off a person’s IQ.
“He’s obviously interested in wielding power — he’s a senator and he’s running for president — but his conception of government is fundamentally libertarian,” Mr. Gillespie said. “It’s about creating a set of minimal, clear and equally applied rules that allow more people to live however they want to, rather than to serve some larger purpose with which they may either agree or not.”
• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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