What to make of maverick Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s latest speechifying? “I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot,” Paul insisted last Friday while speaking to a group of religious Republicans in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative.” Mindful of evangelical contempt for libertarianism—one attendee toldThe Washington Post, “Straight libertarianism has nothing Christian about it”—Paul came across as almost desperate to establish that he’s not endorsing state laws legalizing marijuana and allowing for gay marriages.

In a special aired on the Christian Broadcast Network, Paul talked about his willingness to devolve questions of marriage equality to the states not out of philosophical principle but out of political expediency: “We’re going to lose that battle, because the country is going the other way right now,” he said. “If we’re to say each state can decide, I think a good 25 or 30 states still do believe in traditional marriage, and maybe we allow that debate to go on for another couple of decades and see if we can still win back the hearts and minds of people.”

How to reconcile this Paul with the galvanizing figure whose 13-hour filibuster on the Senate floor demanded—and got—an unambiguously straight answer from the Obama administration on the possible use of drones to kill Americans? Or the Paul who warned at CPAC that “the GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered ... encumbered by an inconsistent approach to freedom” and called on the party to “embrace liberty in both the economic and the personal sphere”?

The gap between his remarks to evangelicals and those directed at the party faithful raise the question: is Rand Paul simply the latest in a long line of Republicans who cultivate libertarian-leaning voters—broadly speaking, people who believe in fiscal conservatism and social liberalism—as they gear up for presidential bids? And then disappoint those same voters almost immediately? In a 1975 interview with Reasonshortly before he made a nearly successful primary run at Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan opined, “I don’t believe in a government that protects us from ourselves,” and “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism”—before attacking the idea of legalizing drugs, gambling, prostitution, pornography, and other “nonvictim” crimes.

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