Rand Paul’s amazing meltdown in his first week as the GOP Senate nominee in Kentucky raises serious questions about media conspiracies – not because the network talking heads decided to ask him tough questions, but because they waited to pose those challenges until after he’d won his primary and the Republicans were stuck with him.
You can’t blame Rachel Maddow or George Stephanopoulos for confronting the candidate about his perplexing past statements on open housing or civil rights legislation but it’s tough to explain why they neglected these issues during Paul’s nomination fight against mainstream conservative Trey Grayson. Had prominent journalists confronted the “Tea Party Insurgent” a month earlier and had Rand Paul responded with the same sort of dodgy, incoherent, embarrassing answers he ineptly offered after his victory, it’s possible that the Republican Primary would have produced a different result, or at least proven much closer.
Could it be that the media establishment wanted Dr. Paul to win and treated him respectfully in order to preserve his chances of victory? For one thing, the eye doctor’s first-time candidacy offered a juicier, more exotic story-line for the political press to cover than the possible triumph of a conventional candidate like Grayson. It’s also possible that Stephanopoulos (former Clinton aide), Maddow (unabashed leftist) and the rest of the liberal-leaning press wanted to nurture Paul’s candidacy in the primary in order to strike a blow against Republican prospects in the general election, knowing that the inexperienced contender with his fringy positions and oddball associations would be easy to defeat and discredit.
There is simply no excuse for Dr. Paul’s appalling (or, one might say, apPauling) handling of these early confrontations with the press. The most devastating moment came at the beginning of his exchange with George Stephanopoulos when the Republican nominee responded to an aggressive question with a long deer-in-the-headlights silence, followed by the plaintive bleat: “Good morning, George, good morning, Robin. When does my honeymoon period start? I had a big victory. I thought I got a honeymoon period from you guys in the media.” The candidate then compounded his problems by canceling a scheduled appearance on Meet the Press--- only the third time in 62 years an announced guest had pulled out of an appearance (the other no-shows were Louis Farrakhan and Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia – a cult leader and a petro-potentate.
Of course, Dr. Paul should have resisted all attempts to draw him into conversation about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The right line would be: “The Civil Rights laws of more than 40 years ago are not an issue in this campaign. I support those laws, and appreciate their important role in bringing America closer to achieving our ideals of equal justice. As a United States Senator, I’ll make sure that this historic legislation is fairly and energetically enforced. I assume that my opponent takes the same position, so let’s talk instead on areas where we disagree. He wants government to spend more and to take more power. I know that government needs to spend less and get smaller, giving people more liberty and the right to keep more of what they earn. That’s the core issue in this campaign and any attempt to bring up settled issues from the days of my childhood is just a dishonest distraction.”
If his interlocutors persisted in throwing back at him past statements where he questioned Civil Rights laws, the obvious retort would be: “I’ve been a private citizen, and a non-politician all my life and in that capacity I engaged in lots of philosophical speculation. Most of those abstract arguments from the past are utterly irrelevant to my campaign for the Senate. I’m now the nominee of the Republican Party for the world’s greatest legislative body. My platform is clear and specific. I’m running to cut spending and shrink government, and lift the debt burden from future generations. I’m not going to let the Democrats escape responsibility for their disastrous fiscal policies by trying to re-fight ancient Civil Rights battles of the ‘60’s where a higher percentage of Senate Republicans than Senate Democrats actually supported the historic legislation that today we all remember with pride.”
The good news for Dr. Paul is that the election is still more than five months away and he has time to reformulate his public response to all challenges and, perhaps, to rebuild his badly tarnished public image. It’s true you never get a second chance to make a first impression, but Rand Paul will make second and third and fourth impressions before voters go the polls.
It’s not just a single Senate seat at stake but Republican prospects across the country. If Dr. Paul loses his race in Kentucky (for a seat currently held by the GOP), the Republicans would need to seize eleven other Democratic seats in order to win a Senate majority– an all but impossible undertaking this year.
Moreover, the Obama administration and its allies will continue to focus on the Kentucky candidate’s vulnerabilities as a means of discrediting the entire Tea Party movement and Republicans in general. Dr. Paul will face additional questions about his father’s many dubious associations –with arch-conspiracist and 9/11 Truther Alex Jones, for instance, and with the Holocaust-denying, virulently anti-Semitic American Free Press – where Ron Paul authored a monthly column that appeared for years without protest from the candidate. Already, there’s new attention focused on a Rand Paul speech in Bozeman Montana during his father’s Presidential campaign in 2008 where the future Senate candidate tried to scare the locals with paranoid visions of the non-existent “NAFTA Superhighway”: “It’s gonna go up through Texas, I guess all the way to Montana,” Dr. Paul warned. “So it’s a real thing…..”
If Rand Paul gets side-tracked with efforts to defend such delusional nonsense he frankly deserves to lose. It’s not too late to reboot his campaign but any effort to do so will require a new dose of rhetorical discipline and ferocious focus.
He will also need to distance himself as quickly as possible from the fringe-candidate nuttiness surrounding his father’s two presidential campaigns (in 2008 and as a Libertarian standard-bearer in 1988). If he fails to do so he’ll suffer humiliating defeat but at least encourage Republicans across the country to disregard another Paulestinian presidential run in 2012 as a dangerous dead-end for conservatives who yearn for meaningful victories.