MACKINAC ISLAND — Their platforms were different, but the Saturday speeches of former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), both Republican presidential candidates, at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference both urged the GOP to examine its identity as a party.

Fiorina, who spoke first, told the crowd that the GOP needs to reintroduce itself.

“It’s amazing to me how many people don’t know, for example, that ours is the party of women’s suffrage,” she said. “The reason I say we have to reintroduce ourselves to the American people is because this is a fight about many things, but it’s mostly about, in 2016, what do we really believe about the potential of the American people? What do we really believe about each and every American and what they’re capable of?”

She said that idea of potential should be the driving force of GOP efforts in 2016, citing welfare programs in arguing that Democrats don’t believe that everybody is equal in capability.

“I am a Republican because I know that no one of us is any better than any other one of us,” she said. “Progressives don’t believe this. They do not believe that everybody has god-given gifts. They do not believe that everyone has potential. They actually believe some are smarter than others, some are better than others, therefore some are going to take care of others.”

An hour later, Paul explored another question of party identity, saying Republicans could and should become the party known for passionately defending justice by guarding the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the right to a speedy trial, with as much energy as the Second Amendment receives.  

Citing the story of Kalief Browder — a 22-year-old man who committed suicide earlier this year after spending three years imprisoned at Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime — he said small-government ideals could address inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system.

“It’s hard for us to understand that,” Paul said of Browder to the crowd. “If it was our kid, we’ve got the money to get him out. We’d go get a good lawyer and get him out.”

“It’s happening in our country,” he continued. “Criminal justice isn’t being applied. And you say, ‘what are you doing?’ You’re saying it’s racist, that we’re just arresting Black people? No, but what happens is, because we have all these laws, and crime tends to be committed in the cities in close proximity, there’s more poor people and there’s more African Americans in the city.”

Paul also spoke directly to the GOP’s identity in Michigan, where the state Republican party traditionally sees victories during the midterm elections — when the governor, attorney general and other state leadership positions are elected — but dominance by Democrats in the presidential election.

To gain more votes in these cycles, Paul urged a more strict adherence to conservative values.

“The one thing we’re not getting is we’re not winning the presidential years,” Paul said. “This is the big debate in the party. Many in the party say we just need to dilute what we stand for; we need to become Democrat-light, offer the people who want government largess, offer them just a little bit less than the Democrats do, but offer them free stuff. I couldn’t disagree more. We need to be more boldly for what we are for.”

Speaking after both speeches of the evening had concluded, Mackinaw City resident Craig Patterson said he appreciated what Fiorina’s remarks, as well as Paul’s push for justice, said about the perception of the GOP.

“It’s freshness, frankly, to have this diversity of thought in the party,” he said. “I wish it all could get out in a way that everybody can understand that there’s a diversity of thought and many of the thoughts are important to the future of Americans.”

Along with party identity, both Fiorina and Paul also questioned the efficacy of the current Republican Party.

“How long have we been talking in the Republican party about reducing debt and deficits?” Fiorina said. “How long have we been talking about limiting the size of government? How long have we been talking about tax reform? We have all the right ideas, folks, but we never get them done. Because to get those ideas put in place requires challenging the status quo.”

She discussed several policy objectives, including requiring the inspector generals of agencies to report to Congress and zero-based budgeting, as examples of how she would fulfil that ideal. With zero-based budgeting, every expense has to be justified with each new budget, whereas traditional budgets often work off the previous year’s base and emphasize justification for new expenditures or spending cuts. 

Paul took a similar tack, highlighting the idea of challenging the status quo.

Referencing a September 30 deadline for the federal government to pass appropriations bills for the 2016 fiscal year — none have been passed so far — he said the Republican majority in Congress wasn’t enough to disrupt the norm.

“Our government is literally out of control,” he said. “And you say, well, we elected Republicans. Why is it not any better? I’ll tell you why it isn’t any better: because we don’t have people who will stand up and say enough’s enough. We lurch from deadline to deadline.”

Paul also cast himself as unique among GOP candidates due to his foreign-policy platform, criticizing the practice of providing funds and arms to some countries in the Middle East.

“Sometimes, in war, there’s no good side and we might not want to participate,” Paul said. “This is an important question. The people that are running for office, almost every one of them, I guarantee you, will get us involved in Yemen. Why? They say, ‘Well Iran’s in Yemen and we have to stop them.’ Well, who else is in Yemen? Al-Qaeda. So Iranian-backed rebels are killing Al-Qaeda. Maybe we should buy popcorn.”

Both Paul and Fiorina had a strong showing on the island before and after their remarks, coming in first and second place, respectively, in a straw poll of attendees conducted by The Detroit News and MIRS. Paul came out on top with 22 percent, with Fiorina receiving 15 percent.

Three other Republican presidential candidates also spoke on the island over the weekend — former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. They received 9.7, 13 and 13.8 percent, respectively, in the straw poll.

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