Sen. Rand Paul's tea-party response to the State of the Union was a mixed bag. At its best, it reflected real movement on the right in favor of immigration reform; at its worst, it was just plain weird.
The Kentucky Republican was least convincing Tuesday night on the topic for which he is best known. He promised to balance the budget in five years, but what he offered was not promising. Consider this passage:
"It is time for a new bipartisan consensus. It is time Democrats admit that not every dollar spent on domestic programs is sacred. And it is time Republicans realize that military spending is not immune to waste and fraud. Where would we cut spending? Well, we could start with ending all foreign aid to countries that are burning our flag and chanting death to America. ... Not only should the sequester stand, many pundits say the sequester really needs to be at least $4 trillion to avoid another downgrade of America's credit rating. Both parties will have to agree to cut, or we will never fix our fiscal mess."
Surely Paul knows that foreign aid is a microscopic part of the federal budget and that Republicans accepted significant cuts in the military $487 billion over 10 years before sequestration. To pretend that cutting foreign aid and national security spending will solve our problems is absurd and all too reminiscent of the phony frugality he complains about.
Paul reverted to reality-based governance when it came to immigration reform, saying: "We must be the party that sees immigrants as assets, not liabilities. We must be the party that says, 'If you want to work, if you want to be an American, we welcome you.' " Great. Now he should tell us if he supports the Gang of Eight plan or something else (and what that something else is).
He was on terra firma with a plea for school choice, putting special emphasis on "poor children in a crumbling system of hopelessness."
But Paul also seemed to hint at another agenda, saying he would insist on trial by jury and search-and-seizure protection. Hmm. We have those things, right? And he said he objects to "secret lists" of Americans to be killed "without trial." Does he think we can't kill an American-turned-jihadist on the battlefield?
Some of what Paul says is simplistic to the point of being misleading; some of it is daft; and some of it is important (albeit vague). If he wants to build credibility, he will have to start spelling out what he means. It is relatively easy to be a gadfly in the Senate. It is much harder to master detail, present credible legislation and accomplish aims.