How do you solve a problem like Rand Paul?
The Kentucky Republican and son of libertarian icon Ron had hardly won his party's nomination for U.S. Senate before getting embroiled in a controversy over the 1964 Civil Rights Act, apparently in the belief that it's never too late to re-litigate 40-year-old historic milestones. Paul doesn't like that the law forced private businesses to serve blacks, a violation of his libertarian principles.
Paul said that he supported the parts of the law that ended state discrimination and he abhors racism. None of which prevented him from getting smeared as a mild-mannered George Wallace. It turns out that a Senate campaign does not offer the same friendly confines for the discussion of libertarian doctrine as a seminar at the Ayn Rand Institute.
Within about 18 hours, Paul told radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham that he would have voted for the law: "I think the South had failed and that the federal government did have a role in ending discrimination in all of these practices." Which is the right answer, politically and substantively. At the time, the balance of the nation agreed with the famous Martin Luther King Jr. riff: "How long? Not long." There was no reason to wait decades more until the South haltingly evolved out of its retrograde commitment to the mores of the Confederacy.
If Kentucky Republicans had nominated Paul's primary opponent Trey Grayson, he certainly wouldn't have been discussing the propriety of desegregating the Woolworth's lunch counter by force of law the day after the election. As Kentucky's secretary of state, Grayson had an impeccable political resume, a safe path to victory in the general election -- and the embrace of the political establishment in a year when it's as welcome as a hearty buss on the cheek from Judas Iscariot.
A great purifying fire is sweeping the land. It's taking out the aged and long-serving (67, 76 and 80 are the ages of Senate and House incumbents who lost primaries during the past two weeks), the unprincipled (Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida and perhaps Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas), the ethically challenged (Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan) and the inoffensive but blandly conventional (Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah and Grayson).
When politics as usual is out of favor, expect some politics as unusual. That's the newcomer Rand Paul, a stilted public performer with an unassailably anti-establishmentarian pedigree. Yet he's not on a suicide mission. He distanced himself from his dad's radical rejection of the American foreign-policy consensus, even if he opposed the Iraq War and has qualms about Afghanistan. He endorsed federal drug laws, a bow to the federal behemoth. He even disavowed the label "libertarian."
Prior to this point, tea-party-infused Republicans have mostly managed to endorse the rightmost plausible candidates in marquee primary battles. Rep. Mark Kirk is not a Jim DeMint Republican, but he won the Senate nomination in Illinois. Marco Rubio chased Crist from the Republican Party, but is a mainstream conservative who leads the latest three-way poll in Florida. Paul is the first major candidate who strains the bounds of the plausible, although he may well win.
He's been anointed the candidate of the tea party by the press, and with some justice. Paul captures the tea party's understandably apocalyptic worries about the debt, its constitutionalist principles, its emphasis on the politics of sincerity and its rejection of Bushian compassionate conservatism.
He supports eliminating the Department of Education, a position that hasn't been heard from a Republican politician of note since about 1994, the last time limited-government politics had any real purchase. If Paul makes it to the Republican Senate caucus, he will help mark out the party's rightmost flank on fiscal issues. That will be good for the nation's balance sheet and welcome to tea partiers, if not always to his colleagues. They will have to learn to live with a problem like Paul.