US & Canada

Could Rand Paul win over modern America?

Rand Paul Image copyright AP
Image caption Senator Rand Paul is expected to be a leading candidate for the Republican nomination in 2016

A week on from the US midterm elections, the whole shebang is still best described in one acerbic tweet.

Ben Casselman, of the website, wrote: "So the voters want a higher minimum wage, legal pot, abortion access and [Republican]representation. OK then."

You nailed it, Ben. There is a contradiction at the heart of the US political mood.

Actually several contradictions, but let's stick with the biggest for the moment.

There was a genuine Republican surge last week.

They did better than they were expecting to in the Senate, better in the House of Representatives, better among the state governors, and - interesting this and not much reported - much better in the local state legislature elections, where the number of assemblies in complete Democratic control dropped from 14 to seven, reportedly the lowest number since the Civil War.

An eye-catching example of a wrenching change - the Nevada Assembly hasn't been under Republican control in more than two decades. It is now - both houses seized last week.

And yet, as Ben Casselman points out, the same people who gave the Republican Party this leg-up from the grave, also voted in large numbers for a range of policies most Republicans think are normally practised by the devil and then only in private.

What gives?

Of course the easy answer to the Casselman conundrum is that it is silly.

Americans did indeed vote Republican and vote for legal pot - but it wasn't the same Americans.

Here is why that might be the case.

American ballot papers are lengthy. As well as the politicians, local and national, there are initiatives that can be approved or disapproved.

Hence the stuff about abortion and pot - these things were actually on the ballot in some states as separate issues to be decided.

So some people will have filled in the bit for the politicians they wanted to support and not bothered to vote on the ballot initiatives banning this or approving that.

Others will have been very fired up by the initiatives and less fired up (to put it mildly) by the politicians.

Either way, surely it would be foolish to suggest that many people voted against themselves - to send a Republican to Washington, for instance, where the party wants to move to restrict abortions, but against the local ballot that would restrict abortions in your state?

Well hold on to your hats psycho-psephologists - that is exactly what happened.

Look at those initiatives that mandate a state-wide rise in the minimum wage.

It is safe to say that there are very few socialists in South Dakota, and yet the proposal to raise the minimum wage passed easily.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The electorate appeared in some cases to cast contradictory votes

Even as they voted Republican, the good folks of South Dakota, and Alaska (many more bears than socialists there) and Arkansas and Nebraska voted for higher state minimum wages.

And this is why - millions of Americans, including many, many Republican voters, think that a hard-working person ought to be paid enough money to look after their family.

They are unconvinced that there is a better way of doing it than raising the state minimum wage.

On abortion the picture is similar.

Yes, voters in Tennessee signed off on a new law amending the state constitution to remove its protections for abortion, but voters in equally conservative North Dakota rejected a measure that would treat a fertilised egg as a person.

Same in Colorado, not quite as conservative a state admittedly, but this year was one where Democrats struggled.

Most Americans seem to want abortion to be legal and available, restricted perhaps, reduced definitely, but not banned.

They will vote Republican but they do not - it seems - approve of the things some socially conservative Republicans want to do.

You could add more - providing legal status to Americans 12 million or so illegal immigrants is another measure opposed by Republicans but supported (depending a bit on how the question is worded) by most Americans.

Sending fewer people to prison is also seen by Americans of all political hue as a desperately needed reform - if only to save on the massive cost of locking up so many people.

The party nationally is behind the curve.

National picture emerges

So you see where this is going. We are beginning to see a national mood, a national picture, a national political scene, amid what appears to be the chaos.

As Barack Obama said in the speech that propelled him to national prominence at the Democratic Convention in 2004: "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America."

Image caption George McGovern's views earned the scorn of his political opponents

Well once again there is - and it is out of love with the Democrats and mildly interested in the Republicans though not so keen on some of their policies.

That America - particularly among the young - is a libertarian place where the old social conservatism of the George W Bush era is as dead as a Dodo, but where the idea that government might have the solution to your problem is also treated with high suspicion.

Can anyone harness this new American reality?

One man, in my view. Senator Rand Paul is the charismatic son of the rather less charismatic Ron Paul who used to run for the Republican presidential nomination on a regular basis.

Senator Paul is less weird than his dad - there are way fewer barnacles on his boat - and regards himself as a mainstream Republican.

He is interested in winning this new American constituency over, interested in reaching out to the former Obama coalition. Heck, he has opened an office in San Francisco.

He does not want to fight endless wars abroad or police people's bedrooms or lock up half the nation.

He is looking like a big deal in the battle to be the Republican presidential candidate in 2016.

I should add by way of a warning that I picked McCain to beat Obama. But anyway.

A final thought.

The greatest slur in American politics was the one levelled against the Democratic candidate George McGovern in 1972 - all he supported, his opponents scoffed, was "acid, amnesty and abortion".

How about adding one ingredient: "Acid, amnesty, abortion and apple pie." And you have the modern mix. As Ben Casselman put it: "OK then."

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