For Republicans, one of the most ominously symbolic races in the country this year is the impending victory of Rand Paul in the Kentucky senatorial primary. (Read TheWeek.com's Instant Guide "Who is Rand Paul?")
Rand Paul is the son of Texas congressman and former presidential candidate, Ron Paul. He is running on the strength of his father’s last name and his father’s lucrative mailing list, appealing to the same voting base with a very similar message.
Paul faces Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a protégé of the state’s senior U.S. senator, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader. Paul has collected endorsements from Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint; Grayson from former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Paul leads in most polls by margins of 12-14 points in the vote scheduled for next Tuesday.
Rand Paul has recently distanced himself from some of his father’s more notorious positions. Rand Paul has pledged not to condemn Israel for defending itself, unlike his father, a fierce Israel critic. Rand Paul describes himself as pro-defense; his father regularly votes against defense appropriations.
This nimble footwork has gained Rand Paul a hearing for an economic message that resonates with Kentucky voters: an all-out attack on the bank bailouts of 2008-2009, bailouts that were supported by Republican and Democratic leaderships alike.
The bank bailouts probably saved the world economy from a great depression. They also violated the everyday sense of fairness of millions of Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike.
Angry Democrats can be mollified a little by the Obama message. “Yes, the bankers got a huge handout. But see, I have a smaller handout for you.”
Republicans are unappeased. They want handouts for nobody.
Unfortunately, people eager for a strong message can be undiscriminating about the messenger. I remember in the late 1970s how much conservatives disliked Jimmy Carter’s “age of limits” message. We believed in growth, opportunity, technology – so much so that many of my friends fell (briefly) victim to Lyndon Larouche’s mad ideology, which exploited those good themes to bad ends.
The same holds true today for the Ron Paul ideology. Conservatives do not want to believe that the bank bailouts averted a financial collapse. That desire renders them vulnerable to the Paulites, who positively welcome a financial collapse as a necessary prelude to the construction of their gold-standard utopia – a fantasy world in which the fluctuations of the credit market are eliminated by the worse-than-the-disease cure of abolishing most forms of credit in the first place.
In today’s Republican mood, politicians who explain practical limits are rejected as weaklings and sell-outs. When Trey Grayson explains that a Republican majority will not be able to balance the budget in a single year – or that some of the anti-drug programs funded by federal dollars are saving lives – he loses support. When Rand Paul announces that he will never vote for an unbalanced budget, today’s angry Republicans hear a man of principle not a petulant grandstander.
You can’t run a country this way of course. Nor (probably) can you win a general election. Especially not with a candidate as deservedly vulnerable as Rand Paul.
While Rand Paul has delicately edged away from his father’s most provocative statements, he still makes regular appeals to his father’s extremist voting base. Rand Paul gives interviews to 9/11 conspiracy monger Alex Jones and solicits Jones’ fans for money. Jones in turn praises Rand Paul as the “real McCoy.”
Rand Paul’s last-minute conversion to tough-on-terrorism is not very credible. He has been caught on videotape denying the threat to U.S. national security posed by an Iranian nuclear weapon.
Rand Paul makes common cause with left-wing antiwar protesters. He has repeated his father’s view that 9/11 was some kind of logical response to U.S. foreign policy.
Ultimately, Rand Paul is a walking target for Democratic negative ads in a closely divided state with a culture of commitment to national security. But right now running the country – or even winning elections – is not a top-of-mind concern for many Republicans. They are voting to send a message, and it’s no time to be fussy about the background, competence, associations, and inner convictions of the messengers.