One of my favorite anecdotes about Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was published about a year and a half ago by National Journal, reporting on a trip the senator made to his adopted home state of Kentucky.
Rand Paul was talking with University of Louisville medical students when one of them tossed him a softball. “The majority of med students here today have a comprehensive exam tomorrow. I’m just wondering if you have any last-minute advice.”“Actually, I do,” said the ophthalmologist-turned-senator, who stays sharp (and keeps his license) by doing pro bono eye surgeries during congressional breaks. “I never, ever cheated. I don’t condone cheating. But I would sometimes spread misinformation. This is a great tactic. Misinformation can be very important.”
It sure can.
The oddball senator, just four years into his career in public service – a career in which he has never actually passed a piece of legislation into law – is formally launching his first presidential campaign today. Rand Paul is making the announcement in Kentucky’s appropriately named Galt House Hotel.
Given the senator’s background, beliefs, and agenda, it’s tempting to pause at this point to ask, “President of what?” Rest assured, however, that Paul, a self-accredited ophthalmologist just five years ago, is asking voters to elect him to the White House. The junior senator from Kentucky believes he’s ready to be the leader of the free world.
There is, however, quite a bit of evidence to the contrary.
In some ways, Paul’s current political position is itself something of an accident. In 2010, Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race was supposed to go in a very different direction – the entire Republican establishment backed then-Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R) as the obvious choice to replace retiring Sen. Jim Bunning (R). GOP leaders, at both the state and federal level, saw Rand Paul as a ridiculous and inexperienced crackpot, riding his father’s name to fringe notoriety. His campaign was dismissed as more of a vanity exercise than a legitimate attempt at statewide office.
Those assumptions were wrong. Tea Partiers bucked the party establishment, rallied behind Paul’s fringe agenda, and elevated him to the Senate. Kentucky voters didn’t seem the least bit fazed by the fact that Rand Paul knew “dangerously little” about Kentucky.
Indeed, it leads to one of my other favorite anecdotes about Rand Paul. During his 2010 campaign, an out-of-town reporter traveling with the candidate asked about the significance of Harlan County, Kentucky. “I don’t know,” Paul replied. Noting that the town of Hazard is nearby, Paul added, “It’s famous for, like, The Dukes of Hazzard.” When an aide tries to steer him towards the truth – Harlan County was home to generations of deadly labor disputes – Paul ignored him, adding, “Maybe the feuding.”
He won easily anyway.
And since getting to the Senate, Paul has made quite a name for himself. Though much of the Beltway media takes him quite seriously, the senator has nevertheless positioned himself as a bizarre conspiracy theorist with unsettling ties to the nation’s crackpot fringe. His budget plan would dismantle much of the U.S. government. His approach to the federal courts would undo much of the 20th century. His beliefs about monetary policy are genuinely terrifying. He’s adopted several signature issues, none of which he seems to understand in any meaningful way.
So often, we hear the phrase, “That guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about” in politics, but in the case of Rand Paul, it’s meant quite literally.
Looking ahead, we already have some sense of what kind of national candidate the senator intends to be. Paul believes he can appeal to young people (despite his opposition to gay rights and reproductive rights), the tech industry (despite his inexplicable opposition to net neutrality), and minority communities (despite his criticisms of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act), which when added to social conservatives and his father’s “movement” might comprise a credible coalition of voters.
I’m skeptical of the plan’s efficacy, but then again, I didn’t think Kentucky would elect him in the first place.
Postscript: Paul already seems to have some of his critics off-balance. The DNC this morning was quick to tie Paul to his unpopular party, dismissing him as “just another Republican,” while the progressive American Bridge super PAC said largely the opposite, labeling him “Paul Off The Wall” because of bizarre, far-from-the-mainstream views.
Some of this may seem like messy message coordination from the left, but it’s also the result of Paul’s disjointed message. The senator went out of his way to break with GOP orthodoxy on some key issues, which led the media to celebrate how “interesting” he is. But he’s also started abandoning some of his most notable principles in the hopes of appearing more mainstream.
If the Democratic message seems confused, that’s largely the result of Rand Paul himself being confused.