Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) hasn't had a great week.
Just as Paul was beginning to make inroads with establishment Republicans ahead of a widely presumed 2016 bid, a plagiarism scandal burst into view. At the same time, one of his potential rivals for the GOP nomination, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, swept to re-election, sucking up all the speculative 2016 air and leaving Paul to flail rather ineffectively at his formidable rival.
Combined, the developments have pushed Paul, for now at least, toward the margins of the GOP, leaving the once-rising Tea Party star to languish on the sidelines.
The fallout began last week when MSNBC's Rachel Maddow reported that Paul had lifted pieces of a speech in which he discussed eugenics from the Wikipedia page for the sci-fi movie Gattaca. Paul initially denied allegations of plagiarism, saying he shouldn't have to footnote his speeches, and claiming he was being "unfairly targeted by a bunch of hacks and haters."
He also jokingly challenged his critics to an old-fashioned duel, an eyebrow-raising response to serious allegations that prompted questions about his comportment and fitness to hold higher office.
Reporters, in a sense, took up Paul's challenge, soon uncovering other incidents in which Paul or his staff had lifted passages verbatim from Wikipedia, news stories, and think tank reports. (Paul even copied from The Week's Dan Stewart.)
Ultimately, Paul conceded "mistakes" had been made, and promised to restructure his staff to ensure it didn't happen again. "What we are going to do from here forward, if it will make people leave me the hell alone, is we're going to do them like college papers," he told the New York Times.
Unfortunately for Paul, the stain of plagiarism isn't an easy one to wash off. In the most infamous parallel, Vice President Joe Biden withdrew from the 1988 Democratic presidential primary following reports that he had plagiarized work in his speeches and in college. It took years before Biden was forgiven. Though Paul's plagiarism "appears to be more about sloppiness," wrote the Washington Post's Aaron Blake, "sloppiness can be deadly as well."
"And given the growing number of examples, it's pretty clear the sloppiness wasn't limited to one or two circumstances," he added.
Once the Washington Times yanked his column, Paul exacerbated his problems by moving it to Breibart.com, a far-right site known for being factually challenged. For comparison, Mitt Romney's op-eds were published in the New York Times; Paul's will appear alongside columns questioning President Obama's citizenship, which doesn't exactly scream serious mainstream candidate.
If the plagiarism scandal weren't bad enough for Paul, Christie had a great week. He handily won his re-election bid, emerging as the GOP's biggest star (again, for now). But instead of letting Christie's star dim a little on its own over time — we are, after all, years away from the 2016 primary — Paul took an unusual jab at Christie for appearing in a $25 million ad campaign, funded with federal dollars, to bring tourists back to New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy.
Paul is by no means mortally wounded. Political history is full of lawmakers who weathered similar ordeals. After all, President Obama was once accused of stealing someone else's words, and he's doing alright for himself.
But the last week offers a whole lot of proof that Paul still has a ways to go.
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