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The Truth About the Tea Party

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The state's Republican establishment, it must be said, is among the most odious in the nation. Its two senators — party kingmaker and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and mentally disappearing ex-jock Jim Bunning — collectively represent everything that most sane people despise about the modern GOP. McConnell is the ultimate D.C. insider, the kind of Republican even Republicans should wonder about, a man who ranks among the top 10 senators when it comes to loading up on pork spending. With his needle nose, pursed lips and prim reading glasses, he's a proud wearer of the "I'm an intellectual, but I'm also a narrow-minded prick" look made famous by George Will; politically his great passion is whoring for Wall Street, his most recent triumph coming when he convinced Republican voters that a proposed $50 billion fund to be collected from big banks was actually a bailout of those same banks. Bunning, meanwhile, goes with the "dumb and unashamed" style; in more than a decade of service, his sole newsworthy accomplishment came when he said his Italian-American opponent looked like one of Saddam's sons.

Paul's animus toward the state's Republican overlords never seemed greater than in August 2009, when McConnell decided to throw a fancy fundraiser in Washington for the national GOP's preferred candidate, Trey Grayson. Attended by 17 Republican senators who voted for the TARP bailout, the event was dubbed the "Bailout Ball" by Paul's people. Paul went a step further, pledging not to accept contributions from any senator who voted to hand taxpayer money over to Wall Street. "A primary focus of my campaign is that we need Republicans in office who will have the courage to say no to federal bailouts of big business," he declared.

The anti-establishment rhetoric was a big hit. Excluded from local campaign events by the GOP, Paul took his act to the airwaves, doing national TV appearances that sent his campaign soaring with Tea Party voters. "We were being shut out of a lot of opportunities in the state, so you go with what is available to you," says Adams. "And what was available was television."

In the primary almost a year later, Paul stomped Grayson, sending shock waves through the national party. The Republican candidate backed by the party's Senate minority leader had just received an ass-whipping by a Tea Party kook, a man who tried to excuse BP's greed-crazed fuck-up in the Gulf on the grounds that "sometimes accidents happen." Paul celebrated his big win by going back to where he'd begun his campaign, The Rachel Maddow Show, where he made a big show of joyously tearing off his pseudolibertarian underpants for the whole world to see — and that's where everything changed for him.
In their first interview, Maddow had softballed Paul and played nice, treating him like what he was at the time — an interesting fringe candidate with the potential to put a burr in Mitch McConnell's ass. But now, Paul was a real threat to seize a seat in the U.S. Senate, so Maddow took the gloves off and forced him to explain some of his nuttier positions. Most memorably, she hounded him about his belief that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an overreach of government power. The money exchange:

Maddow: Do you think that a private business has the right to say we don't serve black people?

Paul: Yeah. I'm not in favor of any discrimination of any form. But what about freedom of speech? Should we limit speech from people we find abhorrent? Should we limit racists from speaking?

Paul was pilloried as a racist in the national press. Within a day he was completely reversing himself, telling CNN, "I think that there was an overriding problem in the South so big that it did require federal intervention in the Sixties." Meanwhile, he was sticking his foot in his mouth on other issues, blasting the Americans With Disabilities Act and denouncing Barack Obama's criticism of British disaster merchant BP as "un-American."

Paul's libertarian coming-out party was such a catastrophe — the three gaffes came within days of each other — that he immediately jumped into the protective arms of Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party. "I think he's said quite enough for the time being in terms of national press coverage," McConnell said, explaining why Paul had been prevailed upon by the party to cancel an appearance on Meet the Press. Some news outlets reported that Paul canceled the appearance after a call from Karl Rove to Adams, who concedes that he did speak with Rove around that time.

Soon after, McConnell threw yet another "Bailout Ball" fundraiser in Washington — only this time it was for Rand Paul. The candidate who just a year before had pledged not to accept money from TARP supporters was now romping in bed with those same politicians. When pressed for an explanation of Paul's about-face on the bailouts, Adams offers an incredibly frank admission. "When he said he would not take money from people who voted for the bank bailout, he also said, in the same breath, that our first phone call after the primary would be to Senator Mitch McConnell," says Adams. "Making fun of the Bailout Ball was just for the primary."

With all the "just for the primary" stuff out of the way, Paul's platform began to rapidly "evolve." Previously opposed to erecting a fence on the Mexican border, Paul suddenly came out in favor of one. He had been flatly opposed to all farm subsidies; faced with having to win a general election in a state that receives more than $265 million a year in subsidies, Paul reversed himself and explained that he was only against subsidies to "dead farmers" and those earning more than $2 million. Paul also went on the air with Fox News reptile Sean Hannity and insisted that he differed significantly from the Libertarian Party, now speaking more favorably about, among other things, judicious troop deployments overseas.

Beyond that, Paul just flat-out stopped talking about his views — particularly the ones that don't jibe with right-wing and Christian crowds, like curtailing the federal prohibition on drugs. Who knows if that had anything to do with hawkish Christian icon Sarah Palin agreeing to headline fundraisers for Paul, but a huge chunk of the candidate's libertarian ideals have taken a long vacation.

"When he was pulling no punches, when he was reciting his best stuff, I felt like I knew him," says Koch, the former campaign volunteer who now works with the Libertarian Party in Kentucky. "But now, with Mitch McConnell and Karl Rove calling the shots, I feel like I don't know him anymore."

Hardcore young libertarians like Koch — the kind of people who were outside the tent during the elder Paul's presidential run in 2008 — cared enough about the issues to jump off the younger Paul's bandwagon when he cozied up to the Republican Party establishment. But it isn't young intellectuals like Koch who will usher Paul into the U.S. Senate in the general election; it's those huge crowds of pissed-off old people who dig Sarah Palin and Fox News and call themselves Tea Partiers. And those people really don't pay attention to specifics too much. Like dogs, they listen to tone of voice and emotional attitude.

Outside the Palin rally in September, I ask an elderly Rand supporter named Blanche Phelps if she's concerned that her candidate is now sucking up to the same Republican Party hacks he once campaigned against. Is she bothered that he has changed his mind on bailouts and abortion and American interventionism and a host of other issues?

Blanche shrugs. "Maybe," she suggests helpfully, "he got saved."

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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