In the midst of a presidential campaign that has been even more disastrous than expected, Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul set aside some time Thursday to go on CNN and whine about Donald Trump. “I think this is a temporary sort of loss of sanity,” Paul told Wolf Blitzer, referring to the billionaire media personality’s continued success among GOP voters. “But we're going to come back to our senses,” he predicted, “and look for someone serious to lead the country at some point.”
Any doubt that Paul was thinking of himself was dispelled later in the interview, when the “most interesting man in politics” donned his psychoanalyst cap and offered his guess as to why so many Republicans preferred Trump. “I think … they're hungry for someone who will tell them the truth and say Washington is broken,” Paul explained. That’s all well and good, he continued, but what the GOP really needed was “a serious discussion about how we're going to do it.”
Unless he's cribbing from someone else’s words, Paul is not an especially articulate man. So it’s possible that he was leaning on the word “serious” because he couldn’t think of a synonym, and not because it was one of his talking points. And in all honesty, that would probably be better for the senator, because Paul being an all-too-fallible human with an all-too-limited vocabulary is understandable. His campaign being more “serious” than Trump’s, on the other hand, is most certainly not.
What is “serious,” anyway? Does a “serious” campaign avoid attention-seeking gimmicks, like Trump’s sojourn to the U.S. southern border? If so, then Paul’s campaign can’t be deemed serious, either. The last time Paul 2016 was in the news — meta stories about its implosion excepted — was when the candidate donned a black t-shirt and a pair of blue jeans and took a chainsaw to a giant pile of papers meant to represent the tax code. A more cartoonish, transparent stunt is hard to imagine.
Maybe a “serious” campaign is one that presents a detailed, coherent set of policies that intend to address issues of national concern. By that standard, Trump’s campaign has indeed fallen short. His one big ideas is to “build a wall” between the U.S. and Mexico — and to force the latter to pay the bill. Trump’s campaign manager says a whole smorgasbord of proposals are already prepped for the unveiling, but they haven’t been released yet because Trump won’t be “dictated to by the mainstream media.”
Unfortunately for Paul, however, when it comes to “serious” policy, his campaign is only marginally better than Trump’s, at best. Paul’s biggest big idea so far, for example, is to radically overhaul the tax code he so recently shredded. According to the New York Times’s Josh Barro, Paul would “replace all of today’s federal taxes with a 14.5 percent flat personal income tax and a 14.5 value-added tax.” But because a VAT — a tax on goods and services — is verboten among conservatives, Paul’s tried to pretend it’s something else. As Barro shows, it isn’t; and misleading about your ideas isn’t very serious now, is it?
But perhaps when Paul talks about a “serious” campaign, he means one that seems more than ambivalent about doing what it takes to actually win. Trump doesn’t seem to be investing much time in courting the GOP’s power-brokers, after all. He’s persona non grata as far as the Koch brothers are concerned; and when he recently met with a group of Iowa religious conservatives, he was almost flamboyantly secular, readily admitting he never asks God for forgiveness. Yahoo’s Matt Bai says Trump’s only running because of “a clinical phobia of obsolescence.”
Yet there, too, Paul is no different. In fact, he’s arguably even worse. Trump’s got his own money to campaign with; and even if he’s not as wealthy as he claims, he’s still absurdly rich. Paul, meanwhile, reportedly cannot be bothered to fundraise or schmooze or glad-hand or do anything of the debasing, tedious things required of a “serious” presidential candidate. Despite having trouble raising money and teetering on the edge between second- and third-tier status in public polling, Paul has repeatedly opted to skip the kind of activist “summits” where candidates can ingratiate themselves with the people who decide the “invisible primary.”
Taken altogether, it’s hard to see what the basis of Paul’s claim to “seriousness” even is. There’s nothing Trump’s doing that Paul isn’t doing, too. It’s just that Trump’s doing the same silly stuff better. Paul can argue, I suppose, that there’s more to his public persona than a silly haircut — but even that’s up for debate. And while most people ding Trump for entertaining wild conspiracies about President Obama’s birthplace, it was only recently that Paul began to wean himself off fantasies of hidden schemes. Whatever a “serious” campaign may be, Paul 2016 isn’t it.