How Rand Paul became the Tea Party’s Obama
His father’s libertarian army and Rush Limbaugh’s “Dittoheads” aren’t natural allies. But Rand Paul has united them
AP/Daniel R. Patmore
Rand Paul speaking in Fancy Farm, Ky., in 2009.
On the afternoon of Dec. 16, 2009, the 236th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, Rand Paul left the office of his small ophthalmology practice in Bowling Green and drove 30 miles to Russellville, Ky. In an election year without the Tea Party movement, Rand Paul’s campaign to become Kentucky’s next U.S. senator would be just as quixotic as the bid his father, Ron Paul, made for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. The younger Paul has never before run for political office, and he shares many of his father’s unorthodox views, including a desire to abolish both the Federal Reserve and the Department of Education. Yet, today he would address Kentucky’s Logan County Republicans as the race’s front-runner.
At the Republican Party headquarters in Russellville, Paul took the podium. Dimpled and handsome, 47 years old, with boyishly tousled salt-and-pepper hair, he surveyed the audience, a crowd of mostly retirement-age GOP stalwarts. Then, in a casual and articulate drawl, Paul committed an act of heresy that would have once doomed any Kentucky Republican: He attacked the state’s senior senator, the minority leader, Mitch McConnell. The oratory opened with a display of subtle rhetorical agility worthy of Mark Antony.
“I got into this initially because there were rumors they were trying to push Jim Bunning out of office,” Paul began. “I said to a reporter, ‘I think that’s wrong.’”
The two-term Sen. Jim Bunning was the slain Caesar of the stump speech. Playing the role of Brutus, of course, was McConnell, whose hand rests on the GOP’s national fundraising taps, and who, with a twist of the wrist, had effectively forced Bunning into retirement. Without directly accusing the honorable Republican leader, Paul decried Bunning’s martyrdom.
“I think he’s done a good job for us,” he said. “He has been conservative, and when the bank bailout came up, Jim Bunning had the courage to vote against it.” Paul didn’t need to tell this group that Bunning had done so in defiance of McConnell — and he was too gentlemanly to belabor the point. The implication was clear: The party boss had taken Bunning down for his principles.
To take Bunning’s place, McConnell had groomed Trey Grayson, a five-generation Kentuckian and fellow graduate of the University of Kentucky Law School — the “leadership academy” of Kentucky politics, as some call it — who is Kentucky’s current secretary of state. Most impressive on Grayson’s political résumé is that he won reelection in 2007, even as the state overwhelmingly elected a Democratic governor. In a state where 60 percent of voters are registered Democrats, Grayson (who is himself a lapsed Democrat) had valuable crossover appeal. When McConnell began assessing Bunning’s electoral prospects in early 2009, Grayson must have seemed especially appealing in contrast. The insubordinate and gaffe-prone Bunning had recently responded to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer by coldly forecasting that she would be dead within a year.
Grayson started the race with party backing, a reputation for competence, an ideal political résumé, and a 6-foot-5 frame that gave him an air of authority that his unspectacular public speaking sometimes lacked. When the first polling was done in September ’09, Grayson had a 34-25 percent lead. Within four months, though, the numbers had reversed, and Paul told the Logan County Republicans why.
“If there’s ever a year for an outsider who has never held office before, this is the year,” Paul said. He recounted tales of Tea Party events. Seven hundred people in his hometown of Bowling Green had rallied on April 15; there were 4,000 in Louisville a few months later. By contrast, Paul said, “The biggest GOP event I’ve been to in the last seven months — 200 people in Louisville. You can see how the Tea Party movement is big and it captures the discontent that’s out there, and sometimes discontent with both sides.”
The political divide between Paul and Grayson broadly represents a larger fault line within the GOP: It’s Republicans who blame the Democrats versus Republicans who blame the government. A day earlier, on Dec. 15, 2009, a coalition of Tea Party groups had held an emergency “Code Red” rally in a park just north of the Capitol. Addressing the crowd was Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who appears to be making a bid to replace McConnell as the leader of the Senate Republicans.
The crowd was about 1,000 strong and half were wearing bright red jackets and hats, to signify the imminent threat posed by the healthcare bill, which at the time seemed close to passing. Several were waving the yellow Gadsden flags of the American Revolution, which feature the words “Don’t Tread on Me” and the image of a coiled rattlesnake ready to strike. Most of the protesters were middle-aged and white, more men than women — a representative sampling of the Tea Party movement, which (polling has since shown) is slightly older, wealthier, better-educated and angrier than the average American.
“Over a year ago,” DeMint said, “Americans voted for a president who promised to cut taxes, cut spending, cut debt.” His amplified voice drowned in a chanted chorus of “liar, liar.” A woman with short gray hair and rosy cheeks that matched her red sweat shirt held a sign that read “Obama bin Lyin.”
DeMint finished his attack on Obama, then pivoted to Republicans.
“Democrats and Republicans, if they’re not standing up for our Constitution, for a balanced budget and the principles of liberty … then you send us people that believe as you do that this country is about freedom and now is our time to fight for it,” he said, and waved to the applauding crowd.
In the GOP’s soul-searching after its 2008 losses, DeMint has been a conservative hard-liner. The rise of the Tea Party has dovetailed with DeMint’s ambitions to trim the moderate fat, push the party to the right, and ultimately lead it. To that end, DeMint has grown his leadership PAC, the Senate Conservatives Fund, into a powerful alternative to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is the fundraising arm of the Senate Republican caucus that McConnell leads. Over $340,000 worth of support from DeMint’s PAC fueled one of the Tea Party’s biggest electoral victories to date, when the right-wing Marco Rubio pulled so far ahead in the Florida polls that the incumbent Republican governor, Charlie Crist, left the party to run as an independent rather than lose in the primary.
DeMint’s endorsement of Paul came only recently, on May 5, the same day McConnell gave his official backing to Grayson.
According to Paul’s campaign manager, David Adams, Paul and McConnell met seven months ago at the Louisville airport, but haven’t met since. Adams confirmed that Paul has not pledged his support for McConnell as leader of the Senate Republicans.
“We haven’t even really seriously talked about the fall election,” Adams said, “and that’s way before something that might happen in the beginning of 2011.”
It seems likely that Paul is waiting to see where the fault line breaks after this election. With his own fundraising machine, he hasn’t needed McConnell’s support. And if Tea Party candidates are widely successful, then DeMint could become the GOP’s new kingmaker. Rand Paul would certainly be a favorite son. In fact, he is already the telegenic, silver-tongued, politically savvy son of the man who won the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll, which gauged Republican sentiments in anticipation of 2012.
It all started with a bomb
Rand Paul’s success can be understood in the genealogy of the Tea Party movement. Its viral and decentralized traits, the intellectual foundations of its libertarianism, and its fundraising tactics all come from Ron Paul’s presidential campaign.
The first Tea Party event of the Obama era was arguably a Ron Paul “money bomb” fundraiser; and the story of that event is the primal example of how the medium of the Internet and the power of American mythology have combined to unify a movement of militant individualists.
The forefathers of the money bomb are two Paul-ites in their mid-30s, Trevor Lyman and Vijay Boyapati. They met online in the fall of 2007 through their shared enthusiasm for Ron Paul, quit their jobs, and moved to New Hampshire to start Operation Live Free or Die, a PAC with the goal of recruiting 1,000 fellow supporters to knock on every door in the state before the presidential primary. Boyapati, an early Google employee who cashed out at the height of the market, bankrolled much of the operation and coordinated the door-knocking. Lyman built the bombs.
His inspiration was the movie “V for Vendetta,” which had gained a cult following among libertarians. The film depicts a dystopian vision of a modern British government co-opted by corporations and transformed into a totalitarian state, which is violently attacked by a masked insurgent who styles himself after Guy Fawkes, the terrorist who was caught on Nov. 5, 1605, attempting to bomb Parliament while its members and the king were inside.
Lyman designed a time bomb of his own: a website that would, over several weeks, collect pledges to donate to Ron Paul. On scores of Ron Paul websites, MySpace and Facebook groups, and libertarian message boards, users began posting live tickers tied to Lyman’s database, which continuously updated the pledge total. On the 402nd anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, the money bomb would trigger a multimillion-dollar blast of coordinated individual donations. It was a novel method of small-donor bundling. A campaign contribution feels important and exciting in proportion to its size; with the money bomb, small contributors became co-conspirators in a larger scheme, and every additional donor they recruited gave them a larger stake in the fundraising total. The first money bomb on Nov. 5th raised $4.2 million.
The Ron Paul online message boards are usually chaotic and contentious — libertarians are by disposition even less likely to sublimate their egos than your average Internet commentator — but within a few days a consensus formed that another money bomb should be set for Dec. 16. “The free market of ideas,” as some Paul-ites call their online community, was functioning efficiently.
Meanwhile, in Dartmouth, Mass., a 49-year-old floor installer named Bob Dwyer had been exploring some Internet message boards and clicked a link to a video of Ron Paul. Like many who are drawn to Paul, Dwyer felt he was finally hearing a convincing explanation of the country’s problems. Unlike the traditional left-right debates, Paul’s was a story of freedom versus oppression that paralleled the original American Revolution.
“Traditionally, I used to think the Democrats are for the poor, Republicans are for the rich, and I was always a poor person, so why would I vote for a Republican?” Dwyer said. “But Ron Paul, he was teaching me, maturing me, educating me.”
A registered Democrat for most of his life, Dwyer had never been politically active, beyond simply voting. Yet he found himself discussing Ron Paul with fellow dads on the sidelines of his daughters’ soccer games with such enthusiasm that people began asking if he was volunteering for the campaign. He used Ron Paul’s website to find and join a Boston-area Meetup group. After the first money-bomb success, the group began discussing what they should do for Dec. 16.
The inspiration struck Dwyer in his sleep. On Tuesday morning, Nov. 13, he awoke with the idea to hold an event, in conjunction with the upcoming money bomb, at Boston’s Faneuil Hall – where many of the Founding Fathers met to plot their responses to the oppressions of the British Parliament, including the original Tea Party.
“I hate to say it, man, but if it’s not spooky to you, I feel like it was divine providence,” Dwyer said, looking back on that morning. “It was like the Founding Fathers came to me in my sleep and stuck the torch of liberty in my hand.”
Read the rest at Salon.com