Rand Paul riles his GOP colleagues again — this time over TikTok
As the outspoken Kentuckian sees it, Republicans could “continuously lose elections for a generation” if they alienate young people by trying to ban an app that claims it has 150 million users in the U.S. Paul added in an interview that his GOP colleagues may not have “thought that through,” connecting it to what he described as his bigger worries about the constitutional and other legal ramifications of government-mandated TikTok limits.
“We are in a political world,” Paul said. “We shouldn’t be completely oblivious to the fact that a lot of young people are on there and it is, frankly, their freedom of speech.”
While Paul is only one voice in Congress’ broader debate over banning TikTok, some fellow Republicans see merit in his political concerns, on top of the legal questions that legislative restrictions might raise. Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) favors the proposal with the biggest momentum in the Senate right now, a plan from Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) to give the executive branch new powers to ban technologies from places like China that could eventually apply to TikTok.
But Cramer acknowledged that “Rand’s probably right that we get blamed” by young voters if apps ultimately get restricted or banned.
“This is why you have to go out and make a case, too,” he said. “There are political ramifications for sure, but there are also serious, I believe, national security ramifications and cultural ramifications to [doing] nothing.”
Republican backers of a TikTok ban openly scoff at Paul’s case. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who got into a heated floor debate with Paul in March after the Kentuckian blocked his bill to swiftly ban TikTok, shot back that Paul’s argument about turning off young voters was “ridiculous” and “so silly I don’t think it’s worth responding to.”
“Listen, if we can’t win younger voters because we’re not on TikTok, we got serious problems in this party,” Hawley said.
Recent polling suggests that young people take a nuanced view of TikTok, controlled by Chinese company ByteDance. A narrow majority of 51 percent of Gen-Z and millennial voters in a March NPR-PBS Newshour-Marist poll opposed a federal ban, while 48 percent supported it.
That’s a much narrower divide than among the general public where the poll found just 36 percent of people opposed a ban, compared to the 57 percent who supported one.
“I’ve got my own focus group of teenagers at home,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who recently introduced bipartisan legislation aimed at limiting young people’s social media use. “A lot of teenagers know that their addiction to screens is not healthy. I think there are actually a lot of teenagers out there looking for help.”
Lawmakers have taken tentative steps toward curbing the app’s influence as they continue to debate the feasibility and legality of a ban. TikTok was blocked from federal devices as part of a government funding bill last year, and the Biden administration has pushed the app’s owners to sell it to American owners or face an outright blockade.
Over in the House, the Foreign Affairs Committee advanced a bill in March along party lines that would effectively ban the social media app. Speaker Kevin McCarthy has voiced support for a ban on the app, while Hakeem Jeffries has backed efforts to find consensus on “appropriate measures” to address “real national security concerns” with TikTok.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also suggested last week that the bipartisan Warner-Thune legislation would be considered for inclusion as part of new China competitiveness legislation he’s pursuing.
Still, Republicans aren’t alone in their anxiety and uncertainty about how restrictions or a ban would play politically. Some Democrats have also expressed fears of a youth backlash if Congress tried to ax the app.
Most Republicans, importantly, said they were unsure if Paul was right about a ban’s effect on young voters but that any political pain would be worth it to combat what they call the clear national security threat of ByteDance’s ties to China.
“The consideration ought to be: Does this represent a risk to national security?” Thune, the chamber’s second senior-most Republican, said in an interview. “The political implications of it, to me, shouldn’t be the primary consideration.”
For Warner’s GOP counterpart on the Senate intelligence committee, it’s not a close call.
“What’s more important: Our national security and the threat that [TikTok] poses to our national security, especially in the long term and the ability to manipulate society?” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who’s introduced bipartisan legislation to ban the app. “You have to weigh that against what you might think the electoral consequences are.”
So despite their awareness that Paul may be correctly predicting their future if they try to ban TikTok, senior Republicans see a greater risk in TikTok’s potential harm to young children and all users whose personal data might be accessed by the Chinese Communist Party via the app’s parent company.
“Believe it or not, sometimes in politics, you have to try to do the right thing,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said. “Regardless of the political price that you pay.”