By FRANK BRUNI
New York Times News Service
When you’ve got loons the likes of Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin fluttering about, I suppose it’s easy not to seem like such a wacko bird yourself.
Is that why Rand Paul is flying high right now? Or is it because he followed his 13-hour filibuster — that knee-defeating, bladder-defying moment in the Senate sun — by showing a few of his less florid feathers? Either way, he has managed, with remarkable speed, to migrate to the foreground of Republican politics. You could almost lose sight of what an albatross he really is.
Today he’s singing the moderate song of immigration reform, and that dirge about drones, which had a valid bass note despite its alarmist melody, struck chords across the political spectrum.
But Paul’s greatest hits include a denunciation of Medicare as socialism, a recommendation of stopping foreign aid to a few key allies, and the insistent introduction of Patriot Act amendments so loopy that one of them netted all of 10 votes from the 95 senators present while another garnered a whopping total of 4. As Jennifer Steinhauer noted in The Times right after he peddled those clunkers, he had seemingly relocated to Washington “less to make laws than points.”
Now he’s making headlines and waves, and not as a Tea Party curiosity but as a Republican Party lodestar, someone discussed seriously as a possible force in the 2016 presidential primaries. He was tapped just last week to be the featured speaker at the approaching Lincoln Day Dinner in Iowa. There’s an important caucus in that state, you’ll recall.
Paul personifies the GOP’s curse right now. Although it needs to re-establish its bearings in the mainstream, many of the Republicans making the biggest splashes are rowing in from strange tributaries, and the establishment can’t seem to stop the tide.
Seasoned hands with cooler heads tend not to generate nearly as much excitement. All Jeb Bush generated with the publicity tour for his immigration book was outright befuddlement.
The tail wags the dog. Rather than Cruz, the junior senator from Texas, humbly taking cues from John Cornyn, the senior senator, Cornyn labors to match the supercilious upstart scowl for scowl, and even followed Cruz’s intemperate lead to cast one of only three Senate votes against John Kerry’s confirmation as secretary of state.
And Mitch McConnell, who is not only Kentucky’s senior senator but also the Senate minority leader, seems to worry more about Paul, the state’s junior senator, than vice versa.
Back when Paul began his 2010 Senate campaign as an insurgent ophthalmologist (how many times does a journalist get to write that phrase?), McConnell supported the other, more established candidate in the Republican primary. Then Paul triumphed, the Tea Party proved its muscle and McConnell, eyeing his own 2014 re-election bid, had to worry about being undone by the very romance with naysaying outsiders that lofted Paul to victory.
McConnell’s campaign manager this time around? The same one Paul used. His new public posture toward Paul? Indulgent, sometimes even adulatory. He joined Paul for a portion of that marathon filibuster, egging him on.
McConnell doesn’t fear a potential Democratic run by Ashley Judd. He fears being “primaried” — the menacing verb that was popularized by the 2010 and 2012 elections, signifying the threat that a state’s restive Republican voters will pick a Richard Mourdock over a Richard Lugar. That’s Cornyn’s dread, too. He’s also up in 2014.
And so someone like Paul (who, by the way, voted for Kerry’s confirmation) sets the tone. I also wonder if he’s modulating his own, as some long-term strategy moseys into his thinking.
Yes, his recent questioning of jail time for marijuana arrests isn’t a certain winner, but it’s not a surefire loser, either. And his immigration speech last week, which called for a path to citizenship without quite calling it that, suggested a fresh calibration and sensitivity.
But his past brims with statements and stands that make him an unhelpful mascot for his party. He’d be a skunk in a presidential primary and a quixotic, doomed nominee.
He has railed erroneously about the Clean Water Act’s effect on his toilets, indelicately quibbled with aspects of the Civil Rights and Americans With Disabilities Acts, and carped about the “nanny state” in relation to seat-belt laws. Yes, seat-belt laws.
His distaste for government is so deep you wonder how he can bear to work there. He’s like a vegan who has chosen to sup at a steakhouse, though I guess that’s the point. Now that he has access to the kitchen, he can filibuster the filet, stall the sirloin with nuisance amendments, and leave diners with only a side of spinach, and maybe an iceberg wedge.
It’s a crazy salad he’s serving, no matter how it’s currently dressed.