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Rand Paul’s shaky weekend sheds light on weaknesses

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This weekend certainly demonstrated that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has his work cut out for him if he decides to run for president. In a large sense he has not only the same burdens as his father did, but also many of the unsavory traits and views President Obama displays.

As for his father, there is no secret he comes with intellectual baggage. In what will be the first of many biographical inquiries the New York Times, surveyed the ideas and people whom he and his father surrounded themselves. We learn, for example:

That worldview, often called “paleolibertarianism,” emerges from the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Alabama, started with money raised by the senior Mr. Paul. . . .
Still, his 2011 book, “The Tea Party Goes to Washington,” praises some institute scholars, recommending their work and the institute website. And he has sometimes touched on themes far from the mainstream. He has cautioned in the past of a plan to create a North American Union with a single currency for the United States, Mexico and Canada, and a stealth United Nations campaign to confiscate civilian handguns. He has repeatedly referred to the “tyranny” of the federal government.

Paul’s own conduct and views at times has shown a marked divergence from his father and/or the crackpot wing of the libertarian movement. But his association with and support for his father’s brand of libertarianism is evident (“side-by-side portraits of father and son adorn one wall in his Senate conference room”).

Moreover, that close identification has resulted in huge blind spots and ideological peculiarities that have already gotten him into trouble. His tolerance of pro-Confederacy views led him to hire and stick by the Southern Avenger. His extreme views on the sanctity of private property led him to criticize civil rights legislation that tells private businesses they cannot discriminate. His penchant both for isolationism and conspiracy theories manifested itself when he struck out at pro-Israel Christians, accusing them of desiring war in the Middle East. His praise for Edward Snowden as a Martin Luther King Jr. figure stems from his paranoia about anti-intelligence operations. In his elevation of drug legalization and anxiety about the Federal Reserve, his father’s obsessions resonates. In these cases dogged conservatives have criticized him. He will have a hard time convincing skeptics that he isn’t simply a savvier incarnation of his father.

Paul the Younger also  bears an uncanny resemblance to Obama in troubling ways. He, like Obama, has no Senate accomplishments in his freshman term and no executive experience. Like Obama, he wants to retrench and “nation build” at home. Like Obama he opposes Iran sanctions (at least at present he is one of two senators to follow the Obama line and disdain sanctions legislation) and calls advocates of a tough Middle East policy warmongers. Like Obama he is prickly and defensive when criticized, threatening to leave politics when his plagiarism was uncovered. And he is the president’s equal when it comes to rewriting the past. He now denies he ever questioned the civil rights laws or, on “Meet the Press” yesterday, that he had lauded Snowden.

It’s not clear how Paul will try to convince primary voters that he is qualified for the presidency. If his qualifications rest on longtime exposure to politics, people are going to suspect he learned the wrong lessons from his father. If his calling card is merely firm ideological footing, mainstream Republicans will worry he’s not the fellow to formulate and pass an agenda, while hawks and social conservatives may worry that he is inflexible to a fault. Following Obama, it isn’t clear if the voters are ready for another speechifying, thin-skinned candidate.

Paul likes to claim that his views and opposition to constructive governance (he voted no on immigration reform, no on reopening the government, etc.) are the personification of real conservatism. It will be interesting to find out if that flies, especially since he, unlike Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), hasn’t bothered to lay out comprehensive views and proposals on health care, education, upward mobility and the rest.

Rand Paul has several years to address these and other weaknesses. But if this weekend’s exposure was a sample of what he’s in for, he should get cracking. He shouldn’t expect anything but exacting and constant scrutiny once he declares his candidacy. If he’s not up for that, he might as well go back to ophthalmology.