Like a lot of folks, including even Jen Rubin, I was impressed with Rand Paul’s recent appearance on Fox News Sunday. And, in general, he’s been a much more formidable politician than your average rookie Senator (and certainly a better politician than his father). I think Rubin’s summary of his strengths is pretty good. But there’s something else about the guy that works to his advantage.
It is natural to assume that there’s more to politicians than what they want you to see when they’re talking on TV. In America, there’s an ingrained (and for the most part healthy) tendency to assume that politicians have a more ambitious agenda than the focus-grouped porridge they offer in public. For decades, this suspicion worked against Democrats in national politics. Alas, in recent years this phenomenon has been more of a disadvantage for Republicans. Obviously, a lot of this has to do with media spin. For instance, George W. Bush, a big government conservative in many areas of domestic policy, was nonetheless seen as some kind of crazy “market fundamentalist.” But at least Bush won elections.
Many of the Republican contenders in 2008 and 2012 lent themselves to the suspicion or the spin that what they really wanted to do was “out of the mainstream.” Whatever Rick Santorum’s true intentions, there’s something about the guy that scares a lot of people. Some of this is obviously unavoidable, given the paranoid style in progressive politics these days. Pretty much anything Republicans say or do lends itself to being labeled “extreme.” Oppose forcing the religious to pay for abortifacients? You’re an extremist. Heck, the allegedly objective press these days seems to think Republican motivations for investigating Benghazi are bigger news — and a bigger scandal — than the stonewalling, obfuscations, misdirection and incompetence on display in the Obama administration.
But I digress. Back to Rand Paul. He’s obviously moderating his image — successfully. He seems reasonable, calm, and thoughtful. But he leaves room for the suspicion that there’s a more aggressive agenda behind the facade. But that agenda is less scary. Whereas the typical Republican often talks in a way that fuels (unwarranted) fears of theocracy and the Handmaid’s Tale, there’s something about the way Rand Paul talks that fuels the suspicion he’d actually be much more libertarian than he lets on. Of course, that suspicion is one reason why conservative hawks distrust him so much and leftwing doves give him so much of a pass. But when it comes to domestic policy, he gives the impression that if he actually got his hands on the levers of power he’d just leave us alone.
Because his rise fuels a narrative the media loves — civil war on the right — Paul’s libertarianism will be treated as charming and harmless for a while more. The fact that the left likes his foreign policy dovishness and the “neocons” don’t also makes him a useful foil for some liberals. But you can be sure that if he got real power and influence within the party or if he were the actual GOP nominee, his charming libertarianism would instantaneously terrify a lot of people. But for now, it all works for him.