It's moments like this for which we created the Fix Endorsement Hierarchy -- an attempt to catalogue all political endorsements from the most important to the least. (You can see the full Hierarchy -- explicitly modeled after Bill Simmons' "Levels of Losing" -- at the bottom of this post.)
This tepid show of "support" from Paul to McConnell is quite clearly an "obligatory endorsement" in our hierarchy.
A bit of history explains things. Remember that Paul beat Trey Grayson, McConnell's preferred candidate, in the 2010 Senate Republican primary. In the wake of that defeat, McConnell quickly got behind Paul and stood by him through some of the struggles that hit during the general election. (Paul won although less convincingly than he might have given the state's GOP lean.) McConnell, hoping to avoid the fate of other "establishment" Republicans in primaries, recruited senior Paul adviser (and member of the Paul family) Jesse Benton to run his 2014 campaign. McConnell would get his tea party cred, Paul would get a foot into the party establishment that could help him when he ran for president in 2016. Paul owed McConnell one and he could pay him back while getting a little something for himself in the deal. It looked like a win-win proposition for everyone involved.
But, despite all of the work McConnell did to keep a primary challenger from emerging, one did in the form of bell magnate Matt Bevin. And, people like Beck (and other anti-establishment Republicans) lined up with Bevin, insistent that McConnell is a deal-maker when a principled ideologue is what's required to change the Senate. All of which puts Paul, who badly wants to be the candidate of the outside Washington/anti-establishment crowd in 2016, in a very uncomfortable place. Hence his awkward answer.
Update: Here is Rand Paul's official statement endorsing Mitch McConnell from last July: "Mitch McConnell is an important ally and a conservative voice in Washington for the people of Kentucky. The commonwealth is stronger because of his service and I look forward to continuing to work with him."
Behold the obligatory endorsement in all its "glory"!
The Fix Endorsement Hierarchy (ranked in order of influence)
* The Symbolic Endorsement: Former Florida governor Jeb Bush endorsing Mitt Romney for president.
* The National Endorsement: Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty for Romney.
* The In-State Statewide Endorsement: Florida Gov. Charlie Crist throwing his support to Sen. John McCain just before the Sunshine State presidential primary in 2008.
* The Celebrity Endorsement: Chuck Norris for Huckabee in 2008; Oprah for Obama.
* The Newspaper Endorsement: The Washington Post endorsing state Sen. Creigh Deeds in the 2009 Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary.
* Out-of-State Statewide Endorsement: South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint endorsing former Florida state House Speaker Marco Rubio in the 2010 Senate primary.
* The What Goes Around Comes Around Endorsement: Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani endorsing Rubio.
* The Obligatory Endorsement: George W. Bush endorsing McCain’s presidential bid in 2008.
* The “Me for Me” Endorsement: Former senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) endorsing Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak’s (D) 2010 Senate campaign.
* The Non-Endorsement Endorsement: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) passing on an endorsement of Sen. David Vitter’s (R) 2010 reelection bid.
* The Backfire Endorsement: Former Vice President Al Gore endorsing former Vermont governor Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential race.
* The Pariah Endorsement: Jailed former congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham backing Newt Gingrich.