Rand Paul, the Gift That Keeps on Giving

Rand Paul should just stop taking questions.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Rand Paul is truly the gift that keeps on giving--to Democrats and to the political media. Paul has spent the last day and more trying to walk back his stated discomfort with the Civil Rights Act while maintaining his intellectual honesty and fidelity to principles. Simply put, Rand Paul seems to have a Barry Goldwater problem: He doesn't know when to be quiet. And the Civil Rights Act question has put a spotlight on that vulnerability for his political opponents and the press. (And despite what Paul might say about the so called liberal media, the only bias in play here is journalists' love of live train wrecks.)

My friend Al Felzenberg, a historian of conservative bent (whose The Leaders We Deserved just came out in paperback), pointed out the Goldwater parallel. "When he ran for president [Goldwater] saw this as an opportunity to educate people on his views instead of speaking in a real world where people lived," Felzenberg says. "The problem of course is that Goldwater would answer the questions at great length."

This is Paul's problem as well. He had hardly finished trying to tamp down the civil rights flap when he was defending BP (of gulf oil spill fame) from that nasty, un-American Obama administration. In the same interview he dodged the basic question of whether the federal government has the right to impose a minimum wage. "I think that's decided," he said, echoing his earlier statement that he wouldn't try to repeal the Civil Rights Act because it was a "settled" issue. When someone says something is "settled" or "decided", more often than not they're signaling that they disagree with the decision but won't bother relitigating it because they know they're in the minority.

And like the gusher at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, the questions don't figure to stop any time soon, and the potential topics are endless. Ezra Klein lists but a few:

Can the federal government set the private sector's minimum wage? Can it tell private businesses not to hire illegal immigrants? Can it tell oil companies what safety systems to build into an offshore drilling platform? Can it tell toy companies to test for lead? Can it tell liquor stores not to sell to minors?

Paul is now in a trap. He can't continue with what Andrew Sullivan calls his "artless honesty." But he also can't morph into a carefully scripted politician. Then, Felzenberg points out, "he's no different than the establishment he claims to tear down: They talk in sound bites, they have a thousand consultants, no hair is out of place."

And Paul's not alone in that trap. Every GOP candidate for office can expect a steady stream of questions about whether they agree with Rand Paul. Their problem is that he's not just some goofy House member (like, say, Ron Paul) but has been embraced as the face of a movement--the Tea Party--which they need to harness, or at least not offend.

Ask yourself how much vulnerable Republican incumbents like Reps. Joseph Cao, Dan Lungren, and Charlie Dent--not to mention the host of challengers and open seat candidates hoping to ride a GOP wave in November--are looking forward to a litany of Paul-related questions. And then ask yourself about the dollar signs dancing before Democratic operatives at the prospect of a wacky new GOP poster boy against whom to raise money.

Oh, and by the way: Rand Paul is going to be on Meet the Press on Sunday. Set your TiVo and break out the popcorn.

Update: Paul has canceled on Meet the Press. That's the smartest thing he's done all week.

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