For months and months, many mainstream media journalists and cable talking-head pundits insisted that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was a top-tier candidate — even the front-runner! — in the 2016 GOP presidential race. They cooed over his “outreach” (as if other Republicans had not been doing this and gaining substantial support from minorities for years), his anti-interventionist foreign policy (less interested in battling the Islamic State than President Obama!), antagonism toward police (he indicted the justice system for racism in the wake of the shooting in Ferguson, Mo., and sat down with the Rev. Al Sharpton), aversion toward effective anti-terrorism tools and his jeans-and-turtleneck attire. They failed to recognize that his stances were mostly at odds with the tastes and views of the party whose nomination he would seek.
Then came his statements about vaccines, followed by backtracking and then by accusations that the mainstream media were out to get him. (In fact, he has exhibited this same pattern — on aid to Israel, for example — whenever his outlandish ideas surfaced.) Even worse, we now know, as Politico reports, Paul was associated with an anti-vaccine group that was also anti-reality: “The group in 2005 published a paper linking the ‘gay male lifestyle’ to a life expectancy shortened by about 20 years, and in 2003 argued that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer. . . . [A Louisville Courier-Journal story] noted that the group has published articles doubting the tie between HIV and AIDS, asking whether President Barack Obama is a hypnotist — based on an examination of his 2008 campaign speeches — and suggesting anti-asbestos regulations helped cause the collapse of the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.”
To make matters worse, Paul bombed with the audience at a recent Koch brothers panel and rudely shushed a CNBC interviewer, losing his cool in an interview.
Light bulb goes off! The mainstream media figure it out: Paul is as off-kilter as his father. Who knew? Well, lots of us who had been paying attention. The man who employed the Southern Avenger, plagiarized others’ speeches, accused former Vice President Dick Cheney of starting the Iraq war because of Halliburton, mused about U.S. provocation of Japan as the genesis of World War II, seriously considered containment of Iran as a viable foreign policy, suggested (before he reversed course) that we had no stake in the Islamic State’s battle for Iraq, wanted to cut all foreign aid and agonized over droning terrorists at cafes was not ever presidential material.
In fairness to the mainstream media, a lot of conservatives have been taking him seriously as well. Voters have been somewhat more discerning, putting Paul in the middle of the pack in polls.
Paul has stated he wants to run for president and reelection to the Senate, although state law prohibits it. Perhaps he can invalidate the state law. If not, a quixotic run for president will take him out of the Senate, thereby removing the gadfly from national office altogether. (Given all his shenanigans, it is also possible that the Democrats field a nominee conservative enough for Kentucky voters and win his seat outright.)
So how did the mainstream media and even some conservatives miss so many indications of Paul’s flakiness? On one level, we can say this is self-interested and intentional blindness. The mainstream media love Paul’s neo-isolationism, and the far right in the GOP is enchanted with his anti-government attitude. But other factors are also at play.
First, the media have trouble distinguishing between people who get a lot of media attention and people who are viable national leaders. Paul gets himself on Fox News and other outlets a lot. His ubiquitousness convinces the media that he must be important. (This is indicative of a more general phenomenon — the media’s self-importance and an inability to distinguish the objects of media infatuation with the realities outside the media.) But the denseness over Paul’s shortcomings also speaks to the confusion in both the mainstream and right-wing media about the nature of conservatism and of the Republican Party. Both underappreciate conservatives’ reverence for order and stability and their belief in American leadership in the world. Bamboozled by the loud but small segment of the party, media figures tend to imagine that Republican voters are far more reactionary, angry and extreme than they are. Successful GOP governors and senators outside deep-red states understand this (they have to get elected, after all) — which is why you don’t see Paul-like characters, say, as governor of Wisconsin or Texas or as Florida’s senator. And finally, media types tend to discount personal characteristics as a relevant consideration for voters. Paul’s prickliness when challenged, refusal to admit past positions and plagiarism problem all reveal a personality ill-suited to the rigors of a long campaign. Voters expect candor, graciousness and grace under fire; Paul lacks all three.
It’s unknown whether Paul will actually run for president and/or run for reelection. Whatever he decides, the Rand Paul phenomenon should be a reminder to voters and the media alike: Don’t ignore warning signs of flakiness, understand who a politician’s real audience is and don’t discount the common sense and traditionalism of average Republican voters.