It’s a bad sign when your campaign is starting to resemble a comments section flame war. Especially when you’re doing it wrong. And Rand Paul — the sort of young, sort of hip, sort of libertarian presidential candidate with a campaign that likes to think it’s sort of good at the Internet — is doing it wrong.
Paul isn’t just screwing up; he’s screwing up comprehensively. His attacks on Donald Trump this last week have been an effete shitshow. He’s drawing negative attention back on his own campaign, and he’s undermining his default brand – that of the semi-cool academic type who can’t be bothered with how wrong everyone is. He’s coming off as the thirstiest dude in a field of candidates whose thirst baseline already looks like a bunch of guys who got stranded in the desert after going to town on a salt lick.
To really get a sense of Paul’s faltering, let’s go to the tapes. Forget the one where Paul conveys the sobriety of his campaign by sawing apart the tax code with less seriousness than a Frank Black video. There’s another one, released Wednesday, titled, “Rand Paul: Telling It Like It Is” – it features ominous (and old) footage of Donald Trump saying the economy performs better under Democrats, and that he’s met Hillary Clinton and thinks she’s a nice person. The Paul campaign followed the video up with a statement: “Rand is running to fight the big business, big government establishment. Donald Trump already represents one end of that problem. Now he wants to represent the other.”
Paul’s ad and response is basically an unforced error layer cake.
1. As Mother Jones‘ David Corn points out, one of Paul’s stump refrains during both his father’s 2008 presidential campaign and his own 2010 senate campaign involved praising Jimmy Carter as a far better president than Ronald Reagan when it came to the budget. Now, leave aside that what Trump said about the economy’s performance under Democrats was true, irrespective of whether his conclusion can actually be attributed to Democrats. If what Trump said counts as conservative apostasy, then Rand’s own stump speech about Reagan being worse than Carter is akin to climbing up on a crucifix and nailing a clown mask on Republican Jesus’ dick.
2. Whatever else you think of the Trump campaign, Trump pointing out that he can buy politicians, but can’t be bought himself, is not only hilarious, but mostly true – and it exposes a deep fissure in the conservative worldview. Rand’s response to the Donald’s donating largesse for candidates on both sides of the aisle involves drawing attention to a problem he cannot possibly ideologically object to. When Trump donates to both parties, he’s investing in future influence-peddling to reduce red tape on projects he undertakes, or to advance policies to his advantage. That’s just rational-actor theory, baby. Even conceding that big-business influence-peddling in D.C. is toxic does nothing for Paul, because his worldview doesn’t permit him the intellectual consistency of decrying that at the state and local level, or in the funding of elections in a post-Citizens United era. He’s complaining about a bug in his Never Ending Pasta Bowl in an Olive Garden ankle-deep in sewage.
3. Look, if you’re going to take a swing at a dude who’s bigger than you, you can’t miss. Trump is crushing Paul in the polls, and rather than cut Trump down to Paul’s size, Paul’s just leaving his side exposed to effortless hooks: In his response to the Paul campaign’s Trump video, Trump cites Reagan as an example of a true conservative whose ideas evolved away from pro-Democratic positions, he mentions that he kicked Paul’s ass at golf, and he closes with astonishment that there’s anyone left in Paul’s campaign unindicted enough to make ads like these.
4. Paul’s ideological inconsistency charge is a wash the moment it emerges from his mouth. You could throw three darts randomly and hit three different policies he’s had on undocumented immigrants. He was for reducing aid to Israel, until he met billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who is for giving money to candidates who like Israel. He was against all intervention in the Middle East until he realized that everyone running in the Republican Party has to oppose the Iran deal. He shamed other Republicans for not reaching out to the black community, then lectured Howard University students with the old (and to them wholly non-revelatory) fact that the NAACP was founded by Republicans, then met with slavery apologist and militant criminal Cliven Bundy. He wanted to reduce the military budget before he called for increasing it by 16 percent. He deplores overseas adventurism, but something something about Syria and ISIS, and he’s going to milk the word “Benghazi” until it’s raw. And it’s only a matter of time until his principled stand against government surveillance turns into an all-out rush to have Hillary Clinton’s skull borg-implanted with a polygraph and a GoPro.
Incoherent argumentative self-sabotage is what happens when a campaign is probably falling apart, but it may be even worse in a macro sense. If you’re someone who intermittently follows politics, you probably don’t have a sense of the unstinting tone of the Rand Paul Experience. And despite how fundamentally gross it is to talk about people’s “brands,” Brand Paul has always been nearly as important as anything Rand Paul says.
Because, as noted above, what Rand Paul says is at best a mishmash at any moment. He cannot stray too far from the Ron Paul machine he inherited and that elected him, but he can’t embrace it at the expense of the conservative machine that could get him through the primaries. He ends up betraying both, and embodying neither.
What he hopes Brand Paul resembles to the casual political observer is the self-possessed imperturbability of the academician. The baseline attitude is one of indulgence for those who simply don’t get it. And that approach more or less works in small doses. The problem is that the academic thing is a lazy pose. Paul’s political education, both practical and textual, comes from working on his father’s campaigns and absorbing the elder gentlemen’s erudition and favorite thinkers. It’s easy to be a star pupil in a one-man schoolhouse. And as soon as he’s out of it — as soon as he deviates from the curriculum or is challenged by others either not steeped in that environment or wholly indifferent to it — he starts to lose the insouciant intellectual composure of Brand Paul. He flails and becomes petulant. He goes from the Professor Candidate to Professor Ted Mosby.
And Donald Trump, who may be the greatest troll in a generation, is bringing out the worst of this. Rand Paul is mad. Rand Paul is not composed, and he is real mad.
There’s an old rule about arguing on the Internet: never pick a fight with someone who obviously cares less than you. The lower the stakes, and the lower your stature, the funnier it is that you’re spitting in the face of someone who can barely stay awake. To put this in practical political terms: Don’t get in a flame war with Donald Trump. He doesn’t care. He’s amazed you’re still talking about him after he got back from the magnificent Trump Turnberry golf course (which he owns). Trump’s VP shortlist is probably just people he knows are willing to legally change their names so his bumper stickers can read: “TRUMP/IDGAF.”
Instead of distracting from his campaign stumbles, Paul’s throwing them into sharp relief. Rather than narrowing the distance between him and Trump, it’s exposing the shortness of his reach. And the smug cool of Brand Paul is basically puling like the school smartass who refuses to acknowledge that he can credibly lose.
He’s trying to burn Donald Trump by throwing stones through his glass house, bouncing them off the tree outside and doinking himself in the forehead on the ricochet. Which would be bad enough, but he shouldn’t be trying to burn Trump at all. You can’t burn this man. Here you were shouting at him while he was at the most luxurious and exclusive resort in the world (everyone loves it) and didn’t know you were still talking about him until he got back and saw you still here. He mentioned your name to his wife, a very very beautiful woman you could never date, and she’d never heard of you.