On Tax Day, a candidacy is born
After the financial crisis hit in September 2008, Paul-ite distrust of the Federal Reserve gained mainstream currency: You didn't need to watch a 40-minute YouTube video of a Ron Paul economics lecture to believe that the U.S. government was in some way enabling Wall Street's financial benders, at taxpayer expense. As Barack Obama's incoming administration prepared a massive economic stimulus package, the same political winds that had given the new president his momentum also stoked the brush fires.
The founders of the Southern Kentucky Bowling Green Tea Party, the group in Rand Paul's hometown, were Wesley J. Leake, a retired senior mechanical and safety inspector for the American Petroleum Institute, and his wife, Mary Jo, a nurse. Wesley doesn't remember where he heard of the first national protest. It was probably e-mail forwarded from a friend -- "one of those e-mails saying 'do this, send that, call this number and support this, and so forth,'" as Wesley put it. "I remember thinking, 'That's a novel idea. If enough people do it, maybe it'll get people's attention.'" On Feb. 1, 2009, Wesley was one of many thousands of people to mail a tea bag to the White House.
The idea for the tea-bag protest probably made its way to his in box, indirectly, from a message board attached to the libertarian financial-news blog Market Ticker. It is there that the earliest known documentary record of the first national Tea Party protest exists: a post by a part-time stock trader named Graham Makohoniuk, who suggested that "everyone mail tea bags (used or new, I guess) into CONgress and the Senate." At the end of his message, he added, "If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many is a symbol worth?"
Neither of the Leakes had been politically active. They were content living on their small farm. But from that single act of protest, in Wesley's telling, he and Mary Jo soon became Tea Party activists.
"Across the Internet came this thing," Wesley explained. "Why don't we, people of a conservative nature -- that think that spending and fiscal irresponsibility is out of hand, that there are not companies too big to fail -- why don't we show up, since we're taxed too much, let's show up Tax Day somewhere and holler at the government."
On Tea Party Patriots, a website that functions partly as a national registry of local Tea Party groups, they discovered there was no Bowling Green group, so they started one. They joined weekly conference calls with other local organizers around the country, moderated by a Tea Party Patriot named Jenny Beth Martin. On Glenn Beck's show, Wesley heard of the related 9/12 movement (and would later travel to Washington, D.C., for the Sept. 12, 2009, protest on the Mall). Taking guidance and inspiration from the national network, the Bowling Green Tea Party began to plan an event for Tax Day, recruiting speakers, making fliers, contacting media outlets.
"People just kinda showed up," said Wesley, who was surprised at how readily fellow Tea Partiers worked to put on the event. "And so word got around, and the media here gave it a little publicity, and people just showed up -- people saying, Well, what can we do about this deal?"
In the early evening of Wednesday, April 15, 2009, about 700 people gathered at the edge of Fountain Square Park before a speaker’s platform equipped with a single microphone and an overmatched P.A. system. Behind them, at the center of the park, was a circular fountain atop which stood a bronze statue of Hebe, the cup bearer of the gods, who plied the Olympians with nectar and ambrosia.
The first speaker of the day was Rand Paul, who by then had said he might run for the Senate if Bunning were to retire. He was greeted with a few homemade "Rand Paul for U.S. Senate" signs, and he seemed to have already plotted his outsider-candidate talking points. Obama had been able to pass the stimulus bill, he said, because Republicans under George W. Bush had lost the moral authority to oppose deficit spending. Rather than deliver a high-minded lecture on the Federal Reserve, as his father might, he painted a visceral picture of inflation, forecasting $12 gallons of milk and telling of workers in the Weimar Republic being paid in wheelbarrows full of worthless currency. The culture of political handouts was to blame for the deficit, Paul argued, and toward the end of his speech he fired a warning shot at McConnell -- the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who has used his seniority to secure millions of dollars in federal funding for Kentucky, from infrastructure projects to research grants for his alma mater.
"Instead of asking them to bring home the bacon, let's bring home the politicians," Paul declared, his biggest applause line of the speech. "Get connected with the Tea ... The people here in this group, if you got together and worked, could easily elect a candidate."
There are 30 Kentucky Tea Party groups registered on Tea Party Patriots alone -- Grassroots Patriots, Ignorant Hillbilly Patriots, Kentucky Freedom Coalition, Ohio County Team of Patriots Undivided Standing (OCTOPUS), to name a few -- and they held rallies that day all across the state.
Libertarianism in the key of Glenn Beck
Rand Paul formally announced his candidacy on Glenn Beck's radio show last Aug. 5. A week later, Beck had him back on. After their show the previous week, Beck said, "I shut off my microphone and went, 'I think I agree with him, and strangely trust him.' So either my gut has gone all crazy, or maybe you're the real deal."
"It's funny," Paul responded, "on the way home I was reading a little book called 'Common Sense' on the plane and it sounded like something I might have written."
"Oh, stop it, Rand," Beck said. (His latest book, styled after Thomas Paine, was titled "Glenn Beck's Common Sense.")
Like the best American politicians -- and professional provocateurs like Glenn Beck -- Paul tells a story of the country's past greatness, its decline and its possible redemption. He shows his followers where they are in the arc of American history.
In Paul's narrative, the hero is the Constitution -- a totemic symbol representing the Founding Fathers. Its distress began with Franklin Roosevelt, who in 1936 threatened to appoint eight additional justices to the Supreme Court, thereby bullying Chief Justice Evan Hughes into supporting the New Deal. The Founders had guarded against such government expansion by clarifying, in the ninth and 10th amendments, that all powers, unless explicitly granted to the federal government, were reserved for the states and the people. The Supreme Court found a loophole in the commerce clause, which simply states that Congress has the power to regulate commerce among the states. Liberally interpreted, "commerce" is understood to include activity with ramifications beyond a state's borders -- which, in today's interconnected economy, covers quite a lot.
As Paul once put it on the stump, "That's the opening that they drive the truck -- the huge behemoth of the federal government -- goes through the opening of the Commerce Clause."
The dysfunctional culture of Washington, in Paul's telling, is a direct result. We send good people to represent us in Washington and they come back dirty because the unrestrained federal government is corrupting them. Blame is spread across the aisle; it's not just Barack Obama who has indulged in deficit spending, but Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Mitch McConnell, and Kentucky's other elder statesman and pork-barrel champion, Rep. Hal Rodgers. This view jibes well with the Tea Party perspective: According to the recent New York Times/CBS poll, a surprisingly large 40 percent of Tea Partiers approve of their congressional representatives, but only 1 percent approve of Congress. If power is corrupting our elected officials in Washington, then the solution is to reduce Washington's power.
Against such a narrative, Paul's Republican primary opponent, Trey Grayson, at first tried to run on his own record. Grayson has a policy wonk's enthusiasm for the workings of government; he implemented a civic literacy program in the state's public schools. And he brought a businessman's efficiency to bear on the secretary of state's office, cutting staff, office space and spending. He gained some national prominence leading a coalition of secretaries of state, in the wake of Bush v. Gore, to reform elections. In short, he is a technocrat.
Grayson can be forgiven for believing that his best talking point might be his experience, given that his opponent had none. When the first public polling was done late last summer, Paul had already gained name recognition and notoriety through his appearances on cable television and at rallies around the state, but Grayson still generally led in the polls by double digits.
In the current atmosphere of populist heat, however -- 53 percent of Tea Partiers classify themselves as "angry" at the way things are going in Washington -- the federal government doesn't need a mechanic, it needs a demolition man. With McConnell's imprimatur, Grayson was practically an incumbent, which had suddenly become a mark of shame. On the stump, Paul brushed aside Grayson's proven competence by quoting a favorite passage from Barry Goldwater's book "The Conscience of a Conservative":
I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution or that have failed their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden.
Paul has defined himself by what he is against. He hasn't needed to offer detailed solutions -- or an explanation, say, of how one might enjoy freedom without a functioning social contract to ensure the general welfare. So far, it has been enough for him to claim that reducing government will also shrink the problems attached to government.
Untethered from the burden of specifics, he has traveled the state in a classic display of retail politics, speaking at gatherings of mainstream Republicans, dissident militias, and everyone in between. In contrast to most campaigns, which often depend on staff to reserve venues and advertise events, Paul has reached hundreds of voters at a time simply by accepting invitations from Tea Parties to show up and talk. By last December, he led Grayson in the polls, 44 percent to 25. Paul was soon endorsed by Sarah Palin.
Toward the end of March, with the polls still forecasting a Paul victory, Grayson began attacking Paul on national security. (The strategic shift bears the mark of McConnell; the minority leader stepped in as de facto campaign chief for both of Bunning's Senate runs when Bunning was in trouble.) In a television ad, a skeptical narrator suggested that Rand Paul was hiding some "strange ideas," including his opposition to the Patriot Act and his observation that the American military presence in the Middle East might have provoked the 9/11 attacks. It was stale Republican boilerplate that could have been written for Bunning in 2004. In a variation on that theme, Grayson's campaign also produced a lurid Web video that spliced together footage of Paul speaking on foreign policy and Jeremiah Wright screaming, "God damn America!"
The ads didn't move the polls. For one thing, Paul had the war chest to fight back with ads of his own. His online fundraising has brought in nearly $3 million -- $500,000 of it from a diffuse assortment of libertarians and Glenn Beck fans outside Kentucky. (By contrast, Grayson's quarter-million-dollar out-of-state haul comes largely from the mainstream fundraising centers of New York and D.C.)
With resources equal to Grayson's, Paul's campaign aired a well-produced television ad. With a picture of the twin towers smoldering on the screen, Paul speaks of his "outrage at terrorists who killed 3,000 innocents. America was attacked, and fighting back was the right thing to do." At the end of the 30-second spot, Paul looks into the camera and says, "Trey Grayson, your shameful TV ad is a lie, and it dishonors you."
For anyone expecting a Ron Paul-like reaction, Rand's ad represented a surprising level of political savvy, personal restraint and ideological compromise. Substantively, the younger Dr. Paul was breaking from his father by proclaiming support for a foreign war. He was also ignoring Grayson's bait. He didn't defend -- or draw attention to -- his own perfectly reasonable, willfully misinterpreted, and potentially unpopular ideas.
Rand Paul takes far less pride in his iconoclasm than his father does, and where his ideas diverge from the Republican mainstream, his messaging is savvy. On national security, he frames his non-interventionism as both a cry for fiscal sanity -- wars are expensive -- and a defense of the Constitution. Either way, a discussion of national security leads naturally back to a criticism of big government, which is the real problem.
Across the ideological spectrum, Americans believe the country’s political process is broken -- and in an age of online political organizing, just as the left wing’s grassroots discontent found powerful expression in the unifying symbol of Barack Obama, the right wing's indignation has found the iconography of the Boston Tea Party.
If elections are about competing narratives, then Grayson hasn’t found one to match Paul’s. Lately, Grayson has taken to echoing him. Just as one got the sense that John McCain was finished in 2008 when he started over-using the word “change,” Grayson’s railing against big government hardly seems like his authentic position, if only because Paul started saying it first. In a primary that Paul has turned into a referendum on “believability,” Grayson’s pander -- even a pander in the right direction -- has seemed like a strike against him.
The political genius of Paul is his ability to cultivate a narrative that speaks to all strains of the Tea Party movement at once. After all, the libertarian purists who loved Ron Paul’s dissident truth-telling are not natural allies of the Limbaugh Dittoheads who dismissed him as an eccentric. He sings his libertarianism in the key of Glenn Beck – and he is writing a Republican playbook for the tea party era, turning grassroots energy into electoral power. Now, less than a week before the primary, polls show Paul's lead over Grayson approaching 20 points. He also leads both of his potential Democratic challengers in the general election polling.
In an election rife with symbolism, the most telling augur came a month ago, on April 14, when the ousted Bunning announced his endorsement. Bunning had once given Grayson his blessing to form an exploratory committee to run for his seat, and in many he ways owed his political career to McConnell. Yet Bunning is best understood as the Hall of Fame pitcher he was -- one man alone on his mound, and a cantankerous competitor to the end. He seemed determined to defy McConnell’s call for a fresh arm, and, in the spirit of militant individualism, handed the ball directly to Paul.