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Pot and Amnesty: Rand Paul's Surprising New Agenda For the GOP


“I want to show what conservatives would or can accept."

Rand Paul (Photo Credit: AP)

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is generally seen as the Tea Partier to end all Tea Partiers among his Senate brethren, and probably no one is less likely to be moved by a call to moderate or fudge his principles than Paul.

So it may surprise many that in the battle over whether the GOP needs to "modernize" by moving left on some issues or dig in its heels and stand pat, Paul is unabashedly siding with the modernizers. For some, this particular choice on Paul's part may smack of betrayal. For those familiar with his career and his ideological background, it should be less of a surprise.

But how exactly is Paul helping to modernize the GOP? Politico reports on the "evolution" he is attempting to bring to the party:

In the wake of Barack Obama’s reelection win and ahead of a possible 2016 White House bid of his own, the Kentucky Republican plans to mix his hard-line tea party conservatism with more moderate policies that could woo younger voters and minorities largely absent from the GOP coalition. It’s the latest tactic of the freshman senator to inject the Libertarian-minded views shared by his retiring father into mainstream Republican thinking as the party grapples with its future.

In an interview with POLITICO, Paul said he’ll return to Congress this week pushing measures long avoided by his party. He wants to work with liberal Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy and Republicans to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for pot possession. He wants to carve a compromise immigration plan with an “eventual path” to citizenship for illegal immigrants, a proposal he believes could be palatable to conservatives. And he believes his ideas — along with pushing for less U.S. military intervention in conflicts overseas — could help the GOP broaden its tent and appeal to crucial voting blocs that handed Democrats big wins in the West Coast, the Northeast and along the Great Lakes.

Laxer positions on marijuana laws and immigration are historically seen as liberal positions, but coming from Paul, such shifts are likely to enjoy a good deal more credibility as a sign of a changing GOP perspective. On that superficial level, therefore, Paul is positioning himself well as an intra-party reformer, especially if he plans to run for president in 2016.

But how much of a change would Paul actually be bringing to the GOP, or to its conservative principles? Actually, not much of one. In fact, Paul's specific proposed changes - a shift toward a less puritanical Drug War and a move toward normalizing the status of illegal immigrants - are right in line not only with his libertarian ideology, but arguably with the roots of conservatism generally.

This is especially the case with respect to drugs, where Paul's position arguing for the legalization of marijuana fits right in line with the position taken by the founder of National Review (and arguably the founder of modern conservatism in America), William F. Buckley Jr. Watch Buckley defend the notion that drugs should be legalized in a debate with Jesse Jackson below:

As to immigration, the question there is more complex. Certainly, the conservative movement has been opposed to the granting of amnesty for illegal immigration -- citing concerns over the rule of law -- and firmly opposed to granting citizenship to illegal immigrants -- citing their proclivity to vote for liberal policies. Libertarians, on the other hand, argue for a completely free labor market where people are free to work wherever they like, and open borders are the reality.

Paul accepts neither of these positions completely:

Paul plans to inject himself into the middle of the GOP’s emotional immigration debate in the wake of Romney losing swing states with heavy Latino populations like Florida, Colorado and Nevada. Paul is working on a novel plan that he says would “assimilate” many of the 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the country. Those individuals, he said, could apply for legal status, but immigration would then be clamped down in the interim. He also says his plan would toughen security at the border.

“I want to show what conservatives would or can accept,” he said in describing his plan. “If we assimilate those who are here, however they got here — don’t make it an easy path for citizenship. There would be an eventual path, but we don’t make anybody tomorrow a citizen who came here illegally. But if they’re willing to work, willing to pay taxes, I think we need to normalize those who are here.”

This is, in essence, a compromise position for both libertarians and conservatives. Libertarians are obliged to allow for a toughening of the border, while conservatives are obliged to back down a bit on the idea that deportation is the only acceptable punishment for illegal immigrants already in America. Is it a functional compromise? Time will tell, but it certainly is a compromise made with an eye toward conservative voters. If the other major voice on immigration in the Senate GOP - Florida Sen. Marco Rubio - accepts this compromise, though, it could easily become the law of the land.

And if that happens, look for Senator Rand Paul's stock to rise.

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