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'Here we go again': Rand Paul clashes with Fauci (for the 4th time)

Yesterday was the fourth time Rand Paul clashed with Anthony Fauci during a hearing. If the senator thinks these exchanges help him, he's wrong.
Image: Sen. Rand Paul. R-Ky., during a hearing at the Capitol
Sen. Rand Paul. R-Ky., during a hearing at the Capitol on Sept. 23, 2020.Alex Edelman / Pool via Reuters

Whenever Dr. Anthony Fauci is scheduled to appear at a Senate hearing, everyone knows just what to expect: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a former ophthalmologist, will pretend that he's more credible on the subject of infectious diseases than the nation's premier epidemiologist.

Take yesterday, for example. The Washington Post reported:

At a Senate hearing, Paul pressed Fauci on health experts' continued recommendation of masks even for people who have contracted the virus or who have been vaccinated. Paul repeatedly suggested wearing masks in those cases was "theater" — pointing specifically to Fauci wearing masks even though he has been vaccinated.

Fauci did his best to be patient with the oft-confused Republican senator, but the "theater" reference -- Paul also accused Fauci of "parading around in two masks for show" -- clearly annoyed the qualified expert.

"Here we go again with 'the theater,'" Fauci said, adding, "Let me just state, for the record, that masks are not theater. Masks are protective."

The back and forth was predictably frustrating. The Kentuckian argued that he doesn't need to get vaccinated because he's already had the virus; the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases explained that's not quite how immunology works. Paul argued that he doesn't have to wear masks to help protect others, and Fauci offered a lesson on variants and evidence.

The senator cherry-picked research that told him what he wanted to hear, while the scientist pointed to the epidemiological consensus.

But what was striking was the familiarity of the circumstances. Rand Paul keeps doing this, apparently under the impression that there's some value to the pointless exercise.

Round 1: In May 2020, Paul lectured Fauci about "people on the other side who are saying there's not going to be a surge" in coronavirus cases, so "we can safely open the economy." The second of three infection spikes soon followed.

Round 2: In June 2020, Paul complained that Fauci's public-health assessments were downers --"All I hear is, 'We can't do this', 'We can't do that'" -- and the crisis would ease with more upbeat rhetoric. "We just need more optimism," the Republican declared.

Round 3: In September 2020, in a tense back and forth, Paul tried to convince Fauci that New York had already reached herd immunity, which was amazingly foolish, even for him.

Round 4 was yesterday. It didn't go well, either.

Stepping back, the overarching problem appears to be relatively straightforward: Rand Paul doesn't know what he's talking about, but he's wholly unaware of his own ignorance. On the contrary, the former ophthalmologist genuinely seems to believe that he has unique and valuable insights, which frees him to reject the assessments of actual experts.

It was last spring, for example, when the Kentucky Republican told reporters that mitigation efforts in New York were not especially effective in saving lives -- "I think New York would have lost about the same amount of people whether they did anything or not," he said -- before arguing that the crisis has been "relatively benign" outside of "New England." (The senator isn't great at geography, either.)

The virus claimed the lives of half-million Americans in the months that followed.

Is it any wonder that Anthony Fauci seems a little exasperated with Rand Paul?