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A Proper Attack on Rand Paul

I took a lot of heat last week [mostly in other forums] for writing a blog post called “In Defense of Rand Paul”. Right at the start I said it was more of an attack on the media than a defense of Rand Paul himself, who was growing less defensible by the minute. I also wrote that I might very well regret writing anything sympathetic towards the guy, and now that a few more news days have passed and I know more about him, I have to admit that I almost regret defending him. But for the most part I stick to what I originally wrote, which is that the media—particularly the small segment of it which could justifiably be called ‘liberal’—was being unfair to tacitly label him a quasi-racist wacko just because of his libertarian approach to the Civil Rights Act. But this morning I read this excellent piece on the Huffington Post by Kelley Beaucar Vlahos which focused on Rand Paul’s more objectionable positions regarding American interventionism and foreign policy. Whoever this Kelley Vlahos is, the mainstream media should take a lesson from her about the right way to criticize a candidate.

One of the reasons I was so quick to defend Rand Paul is because of his father Ron Paul, whom I came to respect during the 2008 Republican Party primary in which Ron Paul was the only candidate willing to come out and say that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a stupid idea that was costing the country more than it could afford. The Republican establishment was quick to label him a crazy wackaloon, and while some of his positions were a bit extreme I thought they were at least philosophically defensible. Ron Paul seemed to be the only guy on the republican side—indeed one of the only candidates from either party—who was actually saying what he genuinely believed with little or no regard to political popularity. So when I saw the liberal media attach the same wackaloon label to his son Rand Paul after what appeared to be an honest philosophical disagreement over the Civil Rights Act, my initial reaction was anger.

And if Rand Paul really were an honest politician as his father seems to be, my anger would still be justified. I get that it’s the media’s job to call attention to some of the more extreme and/or controversial views held by a political candidate, so I don’t begrudge Rachel Maddow for pressing him on that point. I just wish she’d gotten to other issues. I do, however, begrudge Keith Olbermann and a few other commentators who went about covering the story by mercilessly beating up on the guy just for having an unorthodox opinion. “Can you believe this guy?” was the tone. “Doesn’t he know anything about politics? You can’t have that opinion in Washington. What a buffoon!”

They were acting as though Rand Paul had been running on a platform of repealing the Civil Rights Act. As though his first act as a U.S. Senator would be to introduce legislation making it legal for private business owners to refuse to serve minorities. But this was never one of his campaign platforms, he never had any intention of going near the Civil Rights Act, and it only became a major issue because it’s the first question Rachel Maddow decided to ask him about and he foolishly spent 20 minutes trying to avoid giving her a straight answer.

And for the next several days all I heard about Rand Paul was his position on the Civil Rights Act, which I completely disagree with but which I also understand philosophically. If you accept the premises upon which libertarianism is based, then you have to accept the conclusion that business owners have a right to discriminate (particularly if you also accept the premise that businesses are akin to persons). I reject these premises so I reject the conclusion. The media barely even examined the premises and simply lambasted the guy for his conclusion. Although credit should definitely be given to Chris Hayes of The Nation, who brought on a real libertarian to have an honest discussion of the matter while guest-hosting for Rachel Maddow. That, I felt, was the proper way to deal with the issue—as opposed to Olbermann’s approach of bringing on Washington pundits to snicker and crack jokes.

But the real issue is that the Civil Rights Act isn’t even the issue at all. What does Rand Paul think about financial reform? He’s probably against it. Why don’t we talk about that? What does Rand Paul think of the oil spill? We were fortunate enough to see him asked about it and to hear that he believes BP is being treated unfairly—a position far more ridiculous and unprincipled than his stance on Civil Rights. But most importantly, what is his stance on American interventionism, the one position in which I was in 100% agreement with his father Ron Paul?

According to Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, it’s pretty unclear. We know that the Republican establishment opposed Rand Paul because they were afraid he would be critical of the wars like his father. But Rand Paul, who apparently made a political calculation to harness as much Tea Party momentum as possible for his campaign, hasn’t been willing to speak nearly as openly on this issue as he seems to be on others. It may very well be that deep in his libertarian heart of hearts he agrees with his father that the United States has no business spending trillions of dollars on foreign occupation, but that’s the kind of position that will get you thrown directly under the Tea Party Express bus.

The article, which I recommend anyone unfamiliar with Rand Paul to read, excellently presents all we know about Rand Paul’s feelings regarding American foreign policy. He does support the war in Afghanistan, he opposes closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, he supports Israel’s right-wing government and doesn’t think they should be pressed to make any concessions to Palestine. Most telling of all, however, is that while father Ron Paul likened the potential use of nuclear weapons against Iran to genocide, son Rand Paul thinks the nuclear option should remain on the table. Vlahos also calls attention to the fact that he personally courted Sarah Palin’s endorsement and enthusiastically welcomed her support.

This is how it should be done. After reading that article I now feel I know everything I need to know to make a conclusive judgment about Rand Paul, and that judgment is definitively negative. I was wrong to assume that like his father, Rand Paul was a man of principle.

I responded to a few commenters by saying that Rand Paul is not the enemy. His political philosophy may be dangerous and wrong, but at least he truly believes in it. The real enemy, I wrote, are the corporatist politicians who will say whatever they think the public wants to hear and then do whatever benefits them personally once they’re in power. The media should be going after the liars and hypocrites as opposed to demonizing candidates who merely have non-mainstream opinions.

But it now seems quite clear that Rand Paul is the enemy—another hypocrite willing to say whatever he believes is most likely to get him elected, and to refrain from saying anything he thinks would drive his poll numbers down. If he valued principle above power, he would be advocating the non-interventionist principles of the libertarian party in spite of their unpopularity among Tea Partiers, knowing that even if he lost he’d been fighting for what he believed in. If he valued principle above power, he would advocate closing Guantanamo and admit as his father did that dropping a nuclear bomb on Iran would be an act of genocide. If he valued principle above power, he would certainly not have sought and embraced the endorsement of Sarah Palin, the most transparently unprincipled player in American politics today.

So you won’t hear any more defense of Rand Paul coming from me, though I will continue to criticize the liberal media when I think they’re taking the wrong approach. Hopefully as the Rand Paul saga continues into November they’ll go about their criticism with a little less hyperbole and a little more attention to issues that really matter.

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