As you may have noticed I’ve been on hiatus for nearly two months, much of it spending time in Kentucky with the Rand Paul campaign. Here is my article at The American Conservative about my experience:
Senator Tea Party
There’s a word for Rand Paul’s mix of constitutionalism and populism: conservatism.
By Jack Hunter
On election night in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Rand Paul and his wife Kelley stood on the side of the stage where he would soon give his victory speech. They were beaming as they watched their sons onstage jamming their guitars to the chords of “TNT” by Australian rockers AC/DC. Rand had chosen the tune, a personal favorite, for his introduction. I was put in charge of helping the boys with their instruments—for the record, 14-year-old Duncan needed little help—and from where I was standing I had a direct view of Rand and his wife. I don’t know whether they were smiling more over pride in their sons or the fact that Rand had just been elected to the United States Senate.
I still don’t know. As Rand stated time and again during the campaign, he had entered politics to do something about the enormous debt the government was heaping on his sons and future generations. This was not only Rand’s basic message but that of the Tea Party as well, and the day after the election New York magazine wondered if Rand had become the “Tea Partier-in-Chief.” Would he raise hell in Washington, D.C., a populist hooligan unleashed in the halls of Congress? For the enthusiastic crowd gathered at the Bowling Green Convention Center that night, there was no question.
But meeting Rand, one does not think “hell-raiser” or “hooligan.” Cool and contemplative perhaps, maybe serious or studious. My first thought was that Rand had some of the same mannerisms and vocal inflections as his father—and like his dad, he would probably rather read about economics than hold meetings with the politicians who were screwing up the economy.
My second thought was that Rand was probably too smart for politics. That was what seemed to frighten the bipartisan establishment the most. Rand Paul becoming a U.S. Senator was simply not supposed to happen. On the night Rand won his primary, former Bush speechwriter David Frum lamented, “Rand Paul’s victory in the Kentucky Republican primary is obviously a depressing event for those who support strong national defense and rational conservative politics. How is it that the GOP has lost its antibodies against a candidate like Rand Paul?”
Frum was not alone in his concern. When Paul first announced his candidacy he couldn’t get invited to any GOP forums, and he registered barely 15 percent in the polls. A year later, he was tracking well ahead of his primary opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, and had drawn the ire of state and national political insiders. The constellation of power arrayed against him was impressive, including leaders of the state Republican Party, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Senator Rick Santorum, and, perhaps most emblematic of the establishment’s fears, former Vice President Dick Cheney.
At the time, Cheney had only injected himself into two midterm primaries—first to endorse Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Texas governor’s race, then to endorse Rand’s opponent. Cheney’s statement said, “I’m a lifelong conservative, and I can tell the real thing when I see it. I have looked at the records of both candidates in the race, and it is clear to me that Trey Grayson is right on the issues that matter—both on fiscal responsibility and on national security.”
Discussing Cheney en route to a Tea Party event in Paducah, Rand did not hesitate to voice his opinion about his Republican foes: “They are the true neocons, they are ‘conservative’ because they’re military hawks, but they are not conservative, because they are not fiscally conservative. Didn’t [Cheney] say ‘deficits don’t matter’?” No matter how personal his critics became, Rand would always discuss the neoconservatives in measured tones, treating them like has-beens, fossils without a place in the new Tea Party environment.
And he had a point. Where Frum and Cheney were most honest was not in questioning Rand’s conservative bona fides but in their concern that dissent might emerge among Republicans on the issue that had most defined the Bush presidency—national defense. Republican candidates were permitted to criticize Bush’s big-government record but never his foreign policy. But with the election of Obama and the ongoing recession, the habits that had taken hold under Bush were reversed—grassroots conservatives quickly became hard-line hawks against big government but less rigid on foreign policy.
Just how decisively the tide had turned against Cheney’s worldview was demonstrated by the margin of Rand’s victories. The Tea Party swept him to a whopping 24-point win in the Republican primary and a healthy 12-point win in the general election.
But these successes did not come easily, and Paul wound up disappointing some friends and foes alike. Much of this stemmed from inevitable comparisons between Rand and his libertarian firebrand father, with supporters wishing Rand would behave more like Ron and opponents fearing the same. But in a state where nearly 60 percent of voters were registered Democrats and where Ron Paul only received 7 percent of the vote in the 2008 Republican presidential primary, it was obvious that Rand would not be able to run a race like his father’s and win.
When speaking about his relationship with his father, Rand always gives the impression that each of them is his own man, yet they are so similar in their politics that the differences are barely worth mentioning. I felt dumb asking questions about it, as it became clearer that the individualist politics of both men were reflected in their personal relationship.