WASHINGTON -- If Republicans Rand Paul and Ted Cruz were competing in the 2016 tech primary, the senator from Kentucky on Thursday showed why he's ahead — even if he managed to also highlight his weaknesses as a potential presidential candidate during the same appearance.
Both Paul and Cruz appeared at Lincoln Labs’ #RebootCongress conference at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington (subtitle: “Get S#!t Done”), giving a speech and answering questions from organizer-selected moderators.
“I love tech,” Cruz declared as he paced the stage for nearly half an hour with microphone in hand, regaling the scattered crowd with stories of how his parents were programmers in the 1950s and 1960s — echoing the standard campaign trope of telling, say, an Iowa audience which distant relative was born in a town that somewhat resembles a hamlet in the agricultural state.
The Silicon Valley-oriented, mostly tieless, often denim-clad crowd stared back at him. “The principle I’m going to suggest to you is, don’t mess with the Internet!” Cruz said. Exactly two half-hearted claps came from the back of the room. “The two 'don’t mess with us caucus,'” Cruz said, laughing nervously, “and the remainder are looking to be messed with.”
It was a study in contrasts with Paul, who sat onstage with TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington and bantered easily back and forth about Bitcoin currency, net neutrality and how urban liberals could find common ground with rural conservatives. His fluency served as a reminder that he has something of a leg up with the tech crowd; the billionaire PayPal founder Peter Thiel has donated more than $2.5 million to a PAC backing his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, and Rand Paul has traveled to the Valley to raise money. Napster co-founder Sean Parker has donated to RandPAC.
“There is a unifying belief in personal liberty, whether it's gun ownership or that your Visa bill shouldn't be read by the government," Paul said. “The leave-me-alone coalition – I do think there are a lot of people that just want to be left alone.”
“I totally agree with you,” Arrington said at one point during their conversation.
Paul was sidetracked somewhat by a question about vaccinations; he has drawn criticism for lending credence to a widely debunked study supposedly linking autism with vaccines.
At the conference, Paul doubled down on his previous comments. “Those who jumped all over me on this need to stand up and say what they’re for,” he said. “If they asked the president, are you for a new federal law holding people down and vaccinating them? He’s not. And neither is anybody else who gave me a lot of grief over this.”
Arrington prefaced the question by saying he was advised to ask it last, lest he upset the senator.
"You don't want to be shushed, do you?” Paul said to him. The senator had shushed CNBC’s Kelley Evans in an interview earlier this month.
Arrington was quick to reply: "I loved that, by the way.”
Both Cruz and Paul discussed their presidential ambitions, with both acknowledging they were seriously considering running without going any farther than they had in previous appearances.
Paul said he was traveling to early states and to places like Silicon Valley to test his message and gather the data he needed to make the decision.
“Part of the decision-making process is, ‘do you have chance, is the message resonating?’ Do people believe that you can somehow win this?" Paul said. “Because it’s not really a lot of fun.”