How Rand Paul became the Tea Party’s Obama

His father's libertarian army and Rush Limbaugh's "Dittoheads" aren't natural allies. But Rand Paul has united them

Topics: Rand Paul, Ron Paul, 2010 Elections, Jim Bunning, Rand Paul vs. Trey Grayson, Tea Parties, Rand Paul vs. Jack Conway,

How Rand Paul became the Tea Party's ObamaRand Paul speaking in Fancy Farm, Ky., in 2009.

On the afternoon of Dec. 16, 2009, the 236th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, Rand Paul left the office of his small ophthalmology practice in Bowling Green and drove 30 miles to Russellville, Ky. In an election year without the Tea Party movement, Rand Paul’s campaign to become Kentucky’s next U.S. senator would be just as quixotic as the bid his father, Ron Paul, made for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. The younger Paul has never before run for political office, and he shares many of his father’s unorthodox views, including a desire to abolish both the Federal Reserve and the Department of Education. Yet, today he would address Kentucky’s Logan County Republicans as the race’s front-runner.

At the Republican Party headquarters in Russellville, Paul took the podium. Dimpled and handsome, 47 years old, with boyishly tousled salt-and-pepper hair, he surveyed the audience, a crowd of mostly retirement-age GOP stalwarts. Then, in a casual and articulate drawl, Paul committed an act of heresy that would have once doomed any Kentucky Republican: He attacked the state’s senior senator, the minority leader, Mitch McConnell. The oratory opened with a display of subtle rhetorical agility worthy of Mark Antony.

“I got into this initially because there were rumors they were trying to push Jim Bunning out of office,” Paul began. “I said to a reporter, ‘I think that’s wrong.’”

The two-term Sen. Jim Bunning was the slain Caesar of the stump speech. Playing the role of Brutus, of course, was McConnell, whose hand rests on the GOP’s national fundraising taps, and who, with a twist of the wrist, had effectively forced Bunning into retirement. Without directly accusing the honorable Republican leader, Paul decried Bunning’s martyrdom.

“I think he’s done a good job for us,” he said. “He has been conservative, and when the bank bailout came up, Jim Bunning had the courage to vote against it.” Paul didn’t need to tell this group that Bunning had done so in defiance of McConnell — and he was too gentlemanly to belabor the point. The implication was clear: The party boss had taken Bunning down for his principles.



To take Bunning’s place, McConnell had groomed Trey Grayson, a five-generation Kentuckian and fellow graduate of the University of Kentucky Law School — the “leadership academy” of Kentucky politics, as some call it — who is Kentucky’s current secretary of state. Most impressive on Grayson’s political résumé is that he won reelection in 2007, even as the state overwhelmingly elected a Democratic governor. In a state where 60 percent of voters are registered Democrats, Grayson (who is himself a lapsed Democrat) had valuable crossover appeal. When McConnell began assessing Bunning’s electoral prospects in early 2009, Grayson must have seemed especially appealing in contrast. The insubordinate and gaffe-prone Bunning had recently responded to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer by coldly forecasting that she would be dead within a year.

Grayson started the race with party backing, a reputation for competence, an ideal political résumé, and a 6-foot-5 frame that gave him an air of authority that his unspectacular public speaking sometimes lacked. When the first polling was done in September ’09, Grayson had a 34-25 percent lead. Within four months, though, the numbers had reversed, and Paul told the Logan County Republicans why.

“If there’s ever a year for an outsider who has never held office before, this is the year,” Paul said. He recounted tales of Tea Party events. Seven hundred people in his hometown of Bowling Green had rallied on April 15; there were 4,000 in Louisville a few months later. By contrast, Paul said, “The biggest GOP event I’ve been to in the last seven months — 200 people in Louisville. You can see how the Tea Party movement is big and it captures the discontent that’s out there, and sometimes discontent with both sides.”

The political divide between Paul and Grayson broadly represents a larger fault line within the GOP: It’s Republicans who blame the Democrats versus Republicans who blame the government. A day earlier, on Dec. 15, 2009, a coalition of Tea Party groups had held an emergency “Code Red” rally in a park just north of the Capitol. Addressing the crowd was Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who appears to be making a bid to replace McConnell as the leader of the Senate Republicans.

The crowd was about 1,000 strong and half were wearing bright red jackets and hats, to signify the imminent threat posed by the healthcare bill, which at the time seemed close to passing. Several were waving the yellow Gadsden flags of the American Revolution, which feature the words “Don’t Tread on Me” and the image of a coiled rattlesnake ready to strike. Most of the protesters were middle-aged and white, more men than women — a representative sampling of the Tea Party movement, which (polling has since shown) is slightly older, wealthier, better-educated and angrier than the average American.

“Over a year ago,” DeMint said, “Americans voted for a president who promised to cut taxes, cut spending, cut debt.” His amplified voice drowned in a chanted chorus of “liar, liar.” A woman with short gray hair and rosy cheeks that matched her red sweat shirt held a sign that read “Obama bin Lyin.”

DeMint finished his attack on Obama, then pivoted to Republicans.

“Democrats and Republicans, if they’re not standing up for our Constitution, for a balanced budget and the principles of liberty … then you send us people that believe as you do that this country is about freedom and now is our time to fight for it,” he said, and waved to the applauding crowd.

In the GOP’s soul-searching after its 2008 losses, DeMint has been a conservative hard-liner. The rise of the Tea Party has dovetailed with DeMint’s ambitions to trim the moderate fat, push the party to the right, and ultimately lead it. To that end, DeMint has grown his leadership PAC, the Senate Conservatives Fund, into a powerful alternative to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is the fundraising arm of the Senate Republican caucus that McConnell leads. Over $340,000 worth of support from DeMint’s PAC fueled one of the Tea Party’s biggest electoral victories to date, when the right-wing Marco Rubio pulled so far ahead in the Florida polls that the incumbent Republican governor, Charlie Crist, left the party to run as an independent rather than lose in the primary.

DeMint’s endorsement of Paul came only recently, on May 5, the same day McConnell gave his official backing to Grayson.

According to Paul’s campaign manager, David Adams, Paul and McConnell met seven months ago at the Louisville airport, but haven’t met since. Adams confirmed that Paul has not pledged his support for McConnell as leader of the Senate Republicans.

“We haven’t even really seriously talked about the fall election,” Adams said, “and that’s way before something that might happen in the beginning of 2011.”

It seems likely that Paul is waiting to see where the fault line breaks after this election. With his own fundraising machine, he hasn’t needed McConnell’s support. And if Tea Party candidates are widely successful, then DeMint could become the GOP’s new kingmaker. Rand Paul would certainly be a favorite son. In fact, he is already the telegenic, silver-tongued, politically savvy son of the man who won the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll, which gauged Republican sentiments in anticipation of 2012.

It all started with a bomb

Rand Paul’s success can be understood in the genealogy of the Tea Party movement. Its viral and decentralized traits, the intellectual foundations of its libertarianism, and its fundraising tactics all come from Ron Paul’s presidential campaign.

The first Tea Party event of the Obama era was arguably a Ron Paul “money bomb” fundraiser; and the story of that event is the primal example of how the medium of the Internet and the power of American mythology have combined to unify a movement of militant individualists.

The forefathers of the money bomb are two Paul-ites in their mid-30s, Trevor Lyman and Vijay Boyapati. They met online in the fall of 2007 through their shared enthusiasm for Ron Paul, quit their jobs, and moved to New Hampshire to start Operation Live Free or Die, a PAC with the goal of recruiting 1,000 fellow supporters to knock on every door in the state before the presidential primary. Boyapati, an early Google employee who cashed out at the height of the market, bankrolled much of the operation and coordinated the door-knocking. Lyman built the bombs.

His inspiration was the movie “V for Vendetta,” which had gained a cult following among libertarians. The film depicts a dystopian vision of a modern British government co-opted by corporations and transformed into a totalitarian state, which is violently attacked by a masked insurgent who styles himself after Guy Fawkes, the terrorist who was caught on Nov. 5, 1605, attempting to bomb Parliament while its members and the king were inside.

Lyman designed a time bomb of his own: a website that would, over several weeks, collect pledges to donate to Ron Paul. On scores of Ron Paul websites, MySpace and Facebook groups, and libertarian message boards, users began posting live tickers tied to Lyman’s database, which continuously updated the pledge total. On the 402nd anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, the money bomb would trigger a multimillion-dollar blast of coordinated individual donations. It was a novel method of small-donor bundling. A campaign contribution feels important and exciting in proportion to its size; with the money bomb, small contributors became co-conspirators in a larger scheme, and every additional donor they recruited gave them a larger stake in the fundraising total. The first money bomb on Nov. 5th raised $4.2 million.

The Ron Paul online message boards are usually chaotic and contentious — libertarians are by disposition even less likely to sublimate their egos than your average Internet commentator — but within a few days a consensus formed that another money bomb should be set for Dec. 16. “The free market of ideas,” as some Paul-ites call their online community, was functioning efficiently.

Meanwhile, in Dartmouth, Mass., a 49-year-old floor installer named Bob Dwyer had been exploring some Internet message boards and clicked a link to a video of Ron Paul. Like many who are drawn to Paul, Dwyer felt he was finally hearing a convincing explanation of the country’s problems. Unlike the traditional left-right debates, Paul’s was a story of freedom versus oppression that paralleled the original American Revolution.

“Traditionally, I used to think the Democrats are for the poor, Republicans are for the rich, and I was always a poor person, so why would I vote for a Republican?” Dwyer said. “But Ron Paul, he was teaching me, maturing me, educating me.”

A registered Democrat for most of his life, Dwyer had never been politically active, beyond simply voting. Yet he found himself discussing Ron Paul with fellow dads on the sidelines of his daughters’ soccer games with such enthusiasm that people began asking if he was volunteering for the campaign. He used Ron Paul’s website to find and join a Boston-area Meetup group. After the first money-bomb success, the group began discussing what they should do for Dec. 16.

The inspiration struck Dwyer in his sleep. On Tuesday morning, Nov. 13, he awoke with the idea to hold an event, in conjunction with the upcoming money bomb, at Boston’s Faneuil Hall –  where many of the Founding Fathers met to plot their responses to the oppressions of the British Parliament, including the original Tea Party.

“I hate to say it, man, but if it’s not spooky to you, I feel like it was divine providence,” Dwyer said, looking back on that morning. “It was like the Founding Fathers came to me in my sleep and stuck the torch of liberty in my hand.”

The 60 regular members of the Meetup group had been just as fractious and strong-willed as the users of the Ron Paul forums. Dwyer had already quit one Meetup in Providence, which convened closer to his home in the south coast of Massachusetts, after his frustrations with the personality politics had boiled over. The Boston group wasn’t much better. Dwyer and a co-organizer clashed frequently; one day, while setting up a checking account for the group’s fundraising, the two even got into a shouting match in the middle of a bank.

Yet the Boston Meetup group was universally electrified by the Faneuil Hall idea. Within three weeks, they had worked together to register a PAC, raise over $10,000, purchase radio ads to promote the event, set up a live Web feed, and negotiate access to the hall, which had already been reserved by members of the 9/11 Truth movement (who could perhaps also lay claim to the first event of the Tea Party movement, having dumped copies of the 9/11 Commission Report into the Charles River a year earlier). Ron Paul would be in Iowa that day, stumping in preparation for the Jan. 3 caucuses, but Dwyer had seen Rand standing in for his father at a straw poll in New Hampshire and knew he could be the headliner. The younger Paul agreed to come to Boston.

What got the Meetup groups through the personality conflicts, Dwyer said, was participants’ shared enthusiasm for a larger goal.

“How do we take the country back, with a herd of cats?” he said, reflecting on the lessons he has learned as a libertarian organizer. “The symbol has to be something so powerful that everybody just feels it, for people to bypass and become more tolerant of each other.”

The son finds his calling

A northeaster had come in the night before, and the snow and ice blew sideways as a crowd of about 200 assembled at noontime on Dec. 16, 2007, in front of the Old State House, where the Declaration of Independence was first proclaimed. Waving Ron Paul signs, they marched the Freedom Trail to Faneuil Hall, “the Cradle of the Revolution,” a three-story brick building with a white bell tower rising above the crest of the roof.

Inside the great hall, a high balcony overlooked the main floor where the crowd gathered. Along the back of an elevated stage were stone and bronze busts of heroes of American history, and above the statues hung George P.A. Healy’s painting, the size of a Times Square billboard, of Daniel Webster’s 1832 reply to Robert Hayne, in which he argued for the supremacy of federal power over states’ rights. Most people were dressed in winter layers; a few were wearing tri-cornered hats and white curly wigs. The crowd embraced the spirit of historical reenactment and, as the program began, the audience responded to the speakers by shouting their own “huzzahs” and outraged words of dissent, as one might imagine the Sons of Liberty had done in their colonial town hall two centuries earlier.

Rand Paul took the stage to hearty cheers. He wore a dark blazer and the same snowman tie he would wear exactly two years later as a U.S. Senate candidate in Logan County. He had stood in for his father on the campaign trail before, and he spoke with the confidence and timing of a preacher addressing the converted, making jokes, anticipating the applause, knowing when to pause for the clapping to die down and when to raise his voice over the crowd to incite yet more noise. The speech was well tuned to the revolutionary enthusiasm in the room.

“They say the British scoffed at the American rabble,” Paul began. “They laughed at the Americans, their imperfect uniforms, their imperfect tactics. They laughed at retreat after retreat of the American army. They laughed right up until Yorktown.”

The crowd laughed and whooped.

“Today, you are that American rabble: the disgruntled, the disillusioned, the cynical, the bereaved — bereaved at the loss of liberty,” he said. “The establishment from their high-rise penthouse views laughs at you, laughs at us.”

As opening gambits go, the red-meat populism played perfectly — and it was also something of a contrast to Ron Paul. The elder Paul is professorial by disposition, and his followers tend to like and trust him precisely because he doesn’t talk like a typical politician. Rand, on the other hand, was rhetorically shrewd. He delivered most of his lines in an almost weary tone, as Southerners sometimes do to emphasize that they’re speaking common sense. He aimed first for emotional appeal, winning the crowd over before trying to teach them anything. His political philosophy, where it emerged, was specific enough to sound intelligent and general enough to seem universally unobjectionable. When he approvingly quoted his father — “achieving power is never the goal in a truly free society; dissipation of power is the objective of those who truly love liberty” — it sounded not like a substantive and radical proposition, but like the height of modesty, since it was coming from a man who had power over the room. The virtue of the man elided with his words.

In light of Rand Paul’s economic analysis, which is largely consistent with his father’s, the Tea Party day event made perfect sense. According to both Pauls, one of the most insidious instruments of government oppression is the Federal Reserve. Untethered from the gold standard and the Bretton Woods system, and insufficiently accountable to Congress, the Fed creates money by fiat. One problem with this, the Pauls believe, is that every time the Fed creates more dollars, the less $1 is worth. If I have several thousand dollars in my savings account, and the value of those savings is suffering because the Fed is printing money to support the profligate spending of the government, then I am paying the price. In other words, I am being taxed — invisibly, by the chairman of the Fed, whom nobody elected.

This invisible taxation without representation, so viewed, is not unlike a modern-day Townshend duty on tea.

Several people that day told Rand Paul that he should run for public office. The experience was formative for him, according to David Adams, his Senate campaign manager, giving him a visceral experience of the energy of the grass roots. The Tea Party money bomb also raised over $6 million, the largest single-day political fundraising event in history.

“It doesn’t take a majority to prevail,” Rand Paul said in his speech that day, quoting Sam Adams. “It takes an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brush fires of the mind.”

On Tax Day, a candidacy is born

After the financial crisis hit in September 2008, Paul-ite distrust of the Federal Reserve gained mainstream currency: You didn’t need to watch a 40-minute YouTube video of a Ron Paul economics lecture to believe that the U.S. government was in some way enabling Wall Street’s financial benders, at taxpayer expense. As Barack Obama’s incoming administration prepared a massive economic stimulus package, the same political winds that had given the new president his momentum also stoked the brush fires.

The founders of the Southern Kentucky Bowling Green Tea Party, the group in Rand Paul’s hometown, were Wesley J. Leake, a retired senior mechanical and safety inspector for the American Petroleum Institute, and his wife, Mary Jo, a nurse. Wesley doesn’t remember where he heard of the first national protest. It was probably e-mail forwarded from a friend — “one of those e-mails saying ‘do this, send that, call this number and support this, and so forth,’” as Wesley put it. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s a novel idea. If enough people do it, maybe it’ll get people’s attention.’” On Feb. 1, 2009, Wesley was one of many thousands of people to mail a tea bag to the White House.

The idea for the tea-bag protest probably made its way to his in box, indirectly, from a message board attached to the libertarian financial-news blog Market Ticker. It is there that the earliest known documentary record of the first national Tea Party protest exists: a post by a part-time stock trader named Graham Makohoniuk, who suggested that “everyone mail tea bags (used or new, I guess) into CONgress and the Senate.” At the end of his message, he added, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many is a symbol worth?”

Neither of the Leakes had been politically active. They were content living on their small farm. But from that single act of protest, in Wesley’s telling, he and Mary Jo soon became Tea Party activists.

“Across the Internet came this thing,” Wesley explained. “Why don’t we, people of a conservative nature — that think that spending and fiscal irresponsibility is out of hand, that there are not companies too big to fail — why don’t we show up, since we’re taxed too much, let’s show up Tax Day somewhere and holler at the government.”

On Tea Party Patriots, a website that functions partly as a national registry of local Tea Party groups, they discovered there was no Bowling Green group, so they started one. They joined weekly conference calls with other local organizers around the country, moderated by a Tea Party Patriot named Jenny Beth Martin. On Glenn Beck’s show, Wesley heard of the related 9/12 movement (and would later travel to Washington, D.C., for the Sept. 12, 2009, protest on the Mall). Taking guidance and inspiration from the national network, the Bowling Green Tea Party began to plan an event for Tax Day, recruiting speakers, making fliers, contacting media outlets.

“People just kinda showed up,” said Wesley, who was surprised at how readily fellow Tea Partiers worked to put on the event. “And so word got around, and the media here gave it a little publicity, and people just showed up — people saying, Well, what can we do about this deal?”

In the early evening of Wednesday, April 15, 2009, about 700 people gathered at the edge of Fountain Square Park before a speaker’s platform equipped with a single microphone and an overmatched P.A. system. Behind them, at the center of the park, was a circular fountain atop which stood a bronze statue of Hebe, the cup bearer of the gods, who plied the Olympians with nectar and ambrosia.

The first speaker of the day was Rand Paul, who by then had said he might run for the Senate if Bunning were to retire. He was greeted with a few homemade “Rand Paul for U.S. Senate” signs, and he seemed to have already plotted his outsider-candidate talking points. Obama had been able to pass the stimulus bill, he said, because Republicans under George W. Bush had lost the moral authority to oppose deficit spending. Rather than deliver a high-minded lecture on the Federal Reserve, as his father might, he painted a visceral picture of inflation, forecasting $12 gallons of milk and telling of workers in the Weimar Republic being paid in wheelbarrows full of worthless currency. The culture of political handouts was to blame for the deficit, Paul argued, and toward the end of his speech he fired a warning shot at McConnell — the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who has used his seniority to secure millions of dollars in federal funding for Kentucky, from infrastructure projects to research grants for his alma mater.

“Instead of asking them to bring home the bacon, let’s bring home the politicians,” Paul declared, his biggest applause line of the speech. “Get connected with the Tea … The people here in this group, if you got together and worked, could easily elect a candidate.”

There are 30 Kentucky Tea Party groups registered on Tea Party Patriots alone — Grassroots Patriots, Ignorant Hillbilly Patriots, Kentucky Freedom Coalition, Ohio County Team of Patriots Undivided Standing (OCTOPUS), to name a few — and they held rallies that day all across the state.

Libertarianism in the key of Glenn Beck

Rand Paul formally announced his candidacy on Glenn Beck’s radio show last Aug. 5. A week later, Beck had him back on. After their show the previous week, Beck said, “I shut off my microphone and went, ‘I think I agree with him, and strangely trust him.’ So either my gut has gone all crazy, or maybe you’re the real deal.”

“It’s funny,” Paul responded, “on the way home I was reading a little book called ‘Common Sense’ on the plane and it sounded like something I might have written.”

“Oh, stop it, Rand,” Beck said. (His latest book, styled after Thomas Paine, was titled “Glenn Beck’s Common Sense.”)

Like the best American politicians — and professional provocateurs like Glenn Beck — Paul tells a story of the country’s past greatness, its decline and its possible redemption. He shows his followers where they are in the arc of American history.

In Paul’s narrative, the hero is the Constitution — a totemic symbol representing the Founding Fathers. Its distress began with Franklin Roosevelt, who in 1936 threatened to appoint eight additional justices to the Supreme Court, thereby bullying Chief Justice Evan Hughes into supporting the New Deal. The Founders had guarded against such government expansion by clarifying, in the ninth and 10th amendments, that all powers, unless explicitly granted to the federal government, were reserved for the states and the people. The Supreme Court found a loophole in the commerce clause, which simply states that Congress has the power to regulate commerce among the states. Liberally interpreted, “commerce” is understood to include activity with ramifications beyond a state’s borders — which, in today’s interconnected economy, covers quite a lot.

As Paul once put it on the stump, “That’s the opening that they drive the truck — the huge behemoth of the federal government — goes through the opening of the Commerce Clause.”

The dysfunctional culture of Washington, in Paul’s telling, is a direct result. We send good people to represent us in Washington and they come back dirty because the unrestrained federal government is corrupting them. Blame is spread across the aisle; it’s not just Barack Obama who has indulged in deficit spending, but Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Mitch McConnell, and Kentucky’s other elder statesman and pork-barrel champion, Rep. Hal Rodgers. This view jibes well with the Tea Party perspective: According to the recent New York Times/CBS poll, a surprisingly large 40 percent of Tea Partiers approve of their congressional representatives, but only 1 percent approve of Congress. If power is corrupting our elected officials in Washington, then the solution is to reduce Washington’s power.

Against such a narrative, Paul’s Republican primary opponent, Trey Grayson, at first tried to run on his own record. Grayson has a policy wonk’s enthusiasm for the workings of government; he implemented a civic literacy program in the state’s public schools. And he brought a businessman’s efficiency to bear on the secretary of state’s office, cutting staff, office space and spending. He gained some national prominence leading a coalition of secretaries of state, in the wake of Bush v. Gore, to reform elections. In short, he is a technocrat.

Grayson can be forgiven for believing that his best talking point might be his experience, given that his opponent had none. When the first public polling was done late last summer, Paul had already gained name recognition and notoriety through his appearances on cable television and at rallies around the state, but Grayson still generally led in the polls by double digits.

In the current atmosphere of populist heat, however — 53 percent of Tea Partiers classify themselves as “angry” at the way things are going in Washington — the federal government doesn’t need a mechanic, it needs a demolition man. With McConnell’s imprimatur, Grayson was practically an incumbent, which had suddenly become a mark of shame. On the stump, Paul brushed aside Grayson’s proven competence by quoting a favorite passage from Barry Goldwater’s book “The Conscience of a Conservative”:

I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution or that have failed their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden.

Paul has defined himself by what he is against. He hasn’t needed to offer detailed solutions — or an explanation, say, of how one might enjoy freedom without a functioning social contract to ensure the general welfare. So far, it has been enough for him to claim that reducing government will also shrink the problems attached to government.

Untethered from the burden of specifics, he has traveled the state in a classic display of retail politics, speaking at gatherings of mainstream Republicans, dissident militias, and everyone in between. In contrast to most campaigns, which often depend on staff to reserve venues and advertise events, Paul has reached hundreds of voters at a time simply by accepting invitations from Tea Parties to show up and talk. By last December, he led Grayson in the polls, 44 percent to 25. Paul was soon endorsed by Sarah Palin.

Toward the end of March, with the polls still forecasting a Paul victory, Grayson began attacking Paul on national security. (The strategic shift bears the mark of McConnell; the minority leader stepped in as de facto campaign chief for both of Bunning’s Senate runs when Bunning was in trouble.) In a television ad, a skeptical narrator suggested that Rand Paul was hiding some “strange ideas,” including his opposition to the Patriot Act and his observation that the American military presence in the Middle East might have provoked the 9/11 attacks. It was stale Republican boilerplate that could have been written for Bunning in 2004. In a variation on that theme, Grayson’s campaign also produced a lurid Web video that spliced together footage of Paul speaking on foreign policy and Jeremiah Wright screaming, “God damn America!”

The ads didn’t move the polls. For one thing, Paul had the war chest to fight back with ads of his own. His online fundraising has brought in nearly $3 million — $500,000 of it from a diffuse assortment of libertarians and Glenn Beck fans outside Kentucky. (By contrast, Grayson’s quarter-million-dollar out-of-state haul comes largely from the mainstream fundraising centers of New York and D.C.)

With resources equal to Grayson’s, Paul’s campaign aired a well-produced television ad. With a picture of the twin towers smoldering on the screen, Paul speaks of his “outrage at terrorists who killed 3,000 innocents. America was attacked, and fighting back was the right thing to do.” At the end of the 30-second spot, Paul looks into the camera and says, “Trey Grayson, your shameful TV ad is a lie, and it dishonors you.”

For anyone expecting a Ron Paul-like reaction, Rand’s ad represented a surprising level of political savvy, personal restraint and ideological compromise. Substantively, the younger Dr. Paul was breaking from his father by proclaiming support for a foreign war. He was also ignoring Grayson’s bait. He didn’t defend — or draw attention to — his own perfectly reasonable, willfully misinterpreted, and potentially unpopular ideas.

Rand Paul takes far less pride in his iconoclasm than his father does, and where his ideas diverge from the Republican mainstream, his messaging is savvy. On national security, he frames his non-interventionism as both a cry for fiscal sanity — wars are expensive — and a defense of the Constitution. Either way, a discussion of national security leads naturally back to a criticism of big government, which is the real problem.

Across the ideological spectrum, Americans believe the country’s political process is broken — and in an age of online political organizing, just as the left wing’s grassroots discontent found powerful expression in the unifying symbol of Barack Obama, the right wing’s indignation has found the iconography of the Boston Tea Party.

If elections are about competing narratives, then Grayson hasn’t found one to match Paul’s. Lately, Grayson has taken to echoing him. Just as one got the sense that John McCain was finished in 2008 when he started over-using the word “change,” Grayson’s railing against big government hardly seems like his authentic position, if only because Paul started saying it first. In a primary that Paul has turned into a referendum on “believability,” Grayson’s pander — even a pander in the right direction — has seemed like a strike against him.

The political genius of Paul is his ability to cultivate a narrative that speaks to all strains of the Tea Party movement at once. After all, the libertarian purists who loved Ron Paul’s dissident truth-telling are not natural allies of the Limbaugh Dittoheads who dismissed him as an eccentric. He sings his libertarianism in the key of Glenn Beck – and he is writing a Republican playbook for the tea party era, turning grassroots energy into electoral power. Now, less than a week before the primary, polls show Paul’s lead over Grayson approaching 20 points. He also leads both of his potential Democratic challengers in the general election polling.

In an election rife with symbolism, the most telling augur came a month ago, on April 14, when the ousted Bunning announced his endorsement. Bunning had once given Grayson his blessing to form an exploratory committee to run for his seat, and in many he ways owed his political career to McConnell. Yet Bunning is best understood as the Hall of Fame pitcher he was — one man alone on his mound, and a cantankerous competitor to the end. He seemed determined to defy McConnell’s call for a fresh arm, and, in the spirit of militant individualism, handed the ball directly to Paul.

Ben Van Heuvelen is a journalist living in Brooklyn.

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