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05.23.10

Rand Paul's Rookie Mistake

What caused the GOP’s Kentucky Senate nominee to stumble so badly in his first brush with the national press? Mark McKinnon on what went wrong—and why Paul has to raise his game to win.

What caused the GOP’s Kentucky Senate nominee to stumble so badly in his first brush with the national press? Mark McKinnon on what might have gone wrong—and why Paul has to raise his game to win.

What are we to make of Rand Paul?

Contrary to liberal pundits, I don't believe he is the second coming of George Wallace.

Paul, the GOP nominee for Senate in Kentucky, and the Tea Party have both accepted his role as the poster child of “the movement.” And that's a problem for the Tea Party. Up until now, the Tea Party has had the luxury of being ill-defined—a broad, empty vessel into which angry voters could pour their frustrations with the government.

Rand Paul comes off like an academic stiff who wants to give us a lecture on American civics. Well, he just got taken to school on American politics.

But Paul has drawn some lines of definition. The Tea Party will now be associated with Paul rather than the other way around. The more specific Paul gets, the narrower the trading range of the Tea Party.

Rand stumbled badly out of the blocks as a national candidate. He couldn’t get through one news cycle without opening himself up for assault from the media and his opponents.

Some describe it as a rookie’s mistake, but a U.S. Senate race is the big leagues. Rookie mistakes can cost the game. That's why there aren’t many rookies in the Senate.

And there are a few problems with stepping out as he did on The Rachel Maddow Show.

I disagree on just about everything with Maddow. But, unlike many of her colleagues, I think she is generally fair and respectful to her guests. On the other hand, there has never been a doubt in my mind about her ideology or who her audience is. It’s not a reach to assume that she would prefer to see a filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate. I also know she's one of the smartest political hosts on television. If you’re not prepared, Maddow will microwave you in a second with her research and logic. The last show you’d want to do if you’re a brand spanking new GOP nominee for the U.S Senate, is The Rachel Maddow Show.

Meghan McCain: Why Rand Paul Embarrassed the Tea PartyAnd so not surprisingly, Paul could not withstand Maddow’s battery of questions, making a novice mistake with an offhand “Yeah...” to acknowledge a loaded question – though his full response was actually a clear “no” in meaning.

The New York Times pounced on that " misspeak" with creative punctuation, isolating the “yeah” as the incendiary answer to do the most damage. To their credit, The Maddow Show took the Times to task later in the week for misrepresenting Paul’s response.

So, what are we to make of Rand Paul? The possible explanations for the candidate’s troubled debut are:

1. Like a man who seeks the spotlight of politics, he craves public attention. Paul was indiscriminate about the media requests he approved after his primary election.

2. Like many with Libertarian roots, he views his perch like an academic. He wants to teach, preach and proselytize. Paul thinks most of us are just ill-informed about the evils of government. If he can monopolize a microphone, he'll indoctrinate us.

3. It was poor staff work and Paul should have been given better guidance in selecting a friendlier forum for his debut. Or, he was lazy and didn't take the time to recognize he was walking into a sniper’s nest.

My bet is that it's mostly the second reason, assuming the son is like the father. I've spent a good deal of time around Ron Paul during Republican presidential debates. Ron Paul is smart, professorial and quirky. But we never really worried about him being a serious threat. He lives in an intellectual orbit of theory that generally just doesn't have much application in real-world politics.

I would actually find the acts of both Pauls more interesting and entertaining if they didn't take themselves so damn seriously. They are colorless and humorless. There's no Mike Huckabee wink or Newt Gingrich nod to let us know that while this is serious stuff, there is some game to the game.

Rand Paul comes off like an academic stiff who wants to give us a lecture on American civics.

Well, he just got taken to school on American politics. And if he wants to make it to the U.S. Senate through the gauntlet of media ambushes to come, he's going to have to tighten up his act and loosen up his personality.

• In a column last week, I wrote about President Obama continuing to blame President Bush for his problems. Some disagreed. Two days later Politico published an article headlined, “ Obama Campaigns Against Bush—Again

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.