Explaining the Rand Paul Disaster

After getting himself into trouble on Rachel Maddow's show on MSNBC, and everywhere else, Rand Paul has decided to cancel an interview on Sunday's "Meet the Press" rather than risk further damage. It's pretty amazing that a guy who embraced the role of national face of the Tea Party movement with such enthusiasm is crashing and burning so spectacularly. Two points to raise from my reporting trip to Kentucky earlier this week that I think are pertinent.

The first is that the Rand Paul who emerged post-election--questioning the Civil Rights Act, exonerating BP for the oil spill, and generally setting off grenades in the national media--is nothing like the Rand Paul who campaigned and won the Kentucky GOP primary. What Paul spoke about on the stump was mostly the size of the deficit, his desire for a balanced budget and term limits, and his belief that a lot of what Congress does has no basis in the Constitution. Paul's favorite example was health care, not civil rights. But the interesting thing to me, as I wrote on Monday, is that he took care to emphasize those parts of the Tea Party agenda that appeal (he claimed) to independents and moderates. There was no talk of race, civil rights, secession, birtherism and general Fox News lunacy. "The Tea Party is not about extremism," Paul said again and again. The impression in the broader media, including the liberal blogosphere, that Paul is an angry, unlikeable nut was not borne out by my experience on the campaign trail.

The second point, which gets directly to why Rand Paul is suddenly flailing, is that the local Kentucky media--in particular the newspapers, and especially the flagship Louisville Courier-Journal--has been decimated by job cuts, as has happened across the country. This came up several times in discussions with Kentucky politicos and local journalists. The reason it matters is that because there is no longer a healthy, aggressive press corps--and no David Yepsen-type dean of political journalists--candidates don't run the same kind of gauntlet they once did. They're not challenged by journalists. And since voters aren't as well informed as they once were (many are "informed" in the sense of having strongly held views about all manner of things--they're just not "well informed"), they can't challenge the candidates either.

Thus, when Rand Paul appeared on "Maddow" and the other shows, I expect he was prepared to offer the same sermon I heard on the trail. Problem is, he was encountering an aggressive, experienced press corps that appropriately had its own agenda and was eager to challenge Paul to elaborate on his views.

I must admit that, when I first heard the "diminished local press corps" theory of why Paul was skating by, I was not entirely convinced. I'm a lot more persuaded now, and as much as I'd have liked to see him Sunday on "Meet the Press," I think he probably made a wise move in backing out. 

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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