Just when Sen. Ted Cruz’s self-promoting extremism seemed to create room for a far-right 2016 rival who wouldn’t scare children (and the donor class), Sen. Rand Paul is blowing his big chance.
Last week the New York Times reported that in the wake of Cruz’s implosion, Paul’s aides had taken to calling Cruz “the chief of the wacko birds,” using John McCain’s memorable epithet for the junior Texas senator. Paul himself, Jonathan Martin reported, “has quietly been reaching out to more establishment forces within the Republican Party, trying to prove to big donors and mainline Republican organizations that he is more than a Tea Party figure or a rerun of his father’s failed candidacies.” And establishment Republicans were beginning to use the word “grown” and “matured” to describe Paul.
That’s not the word they’re using today, on the heels of a crazy appearance on ABC’s “This Week” where he wished he could challenge the journalists who’ve accused him of plagiarism to a duel.
On the one hand, the revelation that he lifted material from several speeches as well as whole pages of his book from other sources, without attribution, isn’t necessarily a 2016 candidacy-ender. What’s most politically self-destructive is Paul’s bizarre reaction to the charges – which really aren’t “charges,” they’re fact. Instead of admitting he or someone on his staff made an error and promising to toughen his standards, he’s attacked Rachel Maddow, who found the first instance of plagiarism, repeatedly and personally.
"This is really about information and attacks coming from haters,” he told ABC’s Latino-focused network Fusion. “The person who's leading this attack -- she's been spreading hate on me for about three years now." Ew, “spreading hate on me,” that sounds kind of disgusting, Rachel – really?
And then, in a bizarre, likely candidacy-ending interview with ABC’s “This Week,” he began talking about a duel.
"Yes, there are times when [speeches] have been sloppy or not correct or we've made an error," Paul said. "But the difference is, I take it as an insult and I will not lie down and say people can call me dishonest, misleading or misrepresenting. I have never intentionally done so."
He went on: "And like I say, if, you know, if dueling were legal in Kentucky, if they keep it up, you know, it would be a duel challenge. But I can't do that, because I can't hold office in Kentucky then."
“I think I’m being unfairly targeted by a bunch of hacks and haters.”
Paul’s assumption that normal people will hear his reference to fighting a duel and say, "Hell yeah!" betrays his permanent residency on the American fringe. He lives in a world where it’s always the 19thcentury South, and troubles are best handled with guns and guts, not government. Paul acts like nobody’s ever been either smart enough, or brave enough, to tell the plain truth – and once he does, common sense voters will recognize it and reward him. Instead, they recoil and go, “Huh?”
It reminds me of his first run-in with Rachel Maddow, in May 2010, when he told her he didn’t think the Civil Rights Act should apply to private businesses. He bobbed and he weaved but when Maddow asked point blank, “Do you think that a private business has the right to say, ‘we don't serve black people?’” He answered, “Yes,” and defended their “right” to discriminate as “freedom of speech.” (He also said he thought if he’d been alive back then, he’d have marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) That's the interview that made Maddow a "hater," in Paul's view.
I saw the same thing in his under-covered response to the revelation that his aide Jack Hunter was a neo-Confederate racist who’d written a column headlined “John Wilkes Booth was right,” defending the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Paul, of course, came out against assassination – but then he went on to describe Lincoln the way neo-Confederates do, as a tyrannical racist hypocrite who fought the Civil War not to end slavery but to consolidate Northern power. He thought he could get away with repudiating the most extreme expression of neo-Confederate beliefs while validating their core. And that time, at least, he did.
There’s another problem with Paul’s over-the-top response to the plagiarism controversy: It suggests that he doesn’t understand the meaning of the term “plagiarism.” He has repeatedly insisted that he credited the original source of his speech material – the movie "Gattaca," in one instance, and “Stand and Deliver” in another. But he does not seem to get that you can’t lift words directly from Wikipedia and claim them as your own – even though that’s something every sixth-grader knows.
Only a few days after Tailgunner Ted Cruz seemed to be facing a credible Tea Party rival, that rival is melting down. For his part, in the Times piece Cruz was said to be telling GOP donors that Paul can never be elected president “because he can never fully detach himself from the strident libertarianism of his father.” An even bigger problem: Rand Paul can never fully detach himself from himself.