Anyone anticipating bloody carnage when Republican Senator Rand Paul dared show his face at UC Berkeley Wednesday was disappointed, as the libertarian hero mostly drew a crowd of well-wishers. Yes, Rand Paul has fans in the People's Republic.
The senator ostensibly made the Berkeley pit stop as part of his campaign against government surveillance programs. But it was clear that he also wanted to potentially charm a few liberal voters as speculation mounts about his 2016 presidential horizons. Earnest supporters hope Paul can transform into a kind of libertarian FDR, carrying far-right, pocket-sized government principles into the mainstream. (But since when does Berkeley represent the mainstream?)
The crowd in the Chevron Auditorium wasn't too different from what you'd expect at a meeting of the Berkeley College Republicans, who were well represented: young white men with libertarian leanings. If a Bitcoin ATM had been around there would have been a long line for withdrawals. Paul's father, ex-Texas congressman Ron Paul, seemed to be on people's minds as much as his son was. Flynn Kelleher, a Paul devotee and documentary filmmaker from Marin sporting a faded "I (Heart) Ron Paul" t-shirt admitted he was "more familiar" with the elder Paul. Kelleher's mother, Jill, wistfully recalled how Dr. Paul fired up the Berkeley libertarian scene years ago. "For someone my age to connect with the youth the way he did was incredible." She thinks the younger Paul is "a really honest politician," adding, "I run a matchmaking company, so I'm very good at reading people."
Presumably even more attractive to any potential Paul national campaign were the students who came out of sheer curiosity. Jane Schott, a 22-year-old Japanese studies and sociology major was one of them. "I'm very interested to learn what his views are," she said, describing herself as a Republican with libertarian sympathies who has voted Democratic in the past. Eric Parsonnet, a 20-year-old physics major, pondered a blank form for submitting questions to Paul. "I'm not really political, but I'm trying to get involved," he said. "I'm just here to find out more." Devon Harris, a 19-year-old math and Russian language major, came purely for the spectacle: "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a Republican frontrunner for the presidency on a Berkeley campus."
In his address, Paul hit the young crowd where they were most vulnerable: the smartphone. "If you have a cell phone you're under surveillance," he said, suggesting that the country's spy agencies are running a House of Cards-style shadow junta behind the scenes. "I look into the eyes of congressmen and I see real fear. We cannot have unelected people running the government. That's the essence of tyranny."
Throughout, Paul made nice across party lines. "You may be a Republican or a Libertarian or a Democrat. I'm not here to tell you what to be," he said in his opening remarks. He even praised liberal stalwarts like Senator Dianne Feinstein and socialist Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. "Whatever happened to the good liberals?" he asked. But he also touted the merits of a flat tax and defended the One Percent, insisting, "We all work for rich people." Asked about his presidential ambitions Paul offered a coy "maybe," later telling reporters he would not make a decision until after the November midterm elections.
As the crowd filed out a group of students by the news cameras bumped fists and declared, "That was tight." Mission accomplished?