Here's What Frank Bruni Gets Wrong About Rand Paul's Senate Record

Like many in the media, the New York Times columnist emphasizes minor positions while minimizing the Kentucky senator's more important stands.
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Three years ago, the press created the default frame that would be used to cover Rand Paul: Alone among U.S. senators, he would be labeled a "kook" who favors "crazy" policies, disparaging terms that are never applied to establishment Republicans or Democrats, even when they favor an unwinnable drug war or subsidies for sugar and tobacco or a catastrophic war of choice. As I noted after Paul's filibuster, that frame totally failed to anticipate his record thus far in the Senate, his most consequential actions, or the effect of his presence on his colleagues. You'd think that political analysts would see that failure and complicate their coverage. 

Yet Frank Bruni* of the New York Times goes straight to the discredited frame in "Rand Paul's Loopy Ascent." The column isn't in the political analysis business. It's in the attitude business, projecting disdain and dismissiveness that permeates the piece. Implying that the Kentucky Republican is a "wacko bird" and stating outright that he is "an albatross" for the GOP, Bruni writes:

Today he's singing the moderate song of immigration reform, and that dirge about drones, which had a valid bass note despite its alarmist melody, struck chords across the political spectrum.

But Paul's greatest hits include a denunciation of Medicare as socialism, a recommendation of stopping foreign aid to a few key allies, and the insistent introduction of Patriot Act amendments so loopy that one of them netted all of 10 votes from the 95 senators present while another garnered a whopping total of 4**.

Bruni is welcome to criticize Paul on Medicare (though it would be best to address the actual position he's taken as a senator). He is free to denounce Paul's aversion to dispersing foreign aid. But he spreads ignorant nonsense by characterizing Paul's Patriot Act amendments as "loopy." The one that garnered just four votes, Amendment 365, would've required "financial institutions to issue suspicious activity reports only in cases in which an appropriate law enforcement agency initiates the request." I'd like Bruni to explain why that amendment was "loopy."

You'd never know from Bruni's column that Paul advocated for a total of nine reforms to the Patriot Act:

  • He teamed up with Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont on an amendment that "calls for greater oversight ... and adds new sunsets to surveillance tools known as National Security Letters."
  • He sought to put the burden for generating suspicious activity reports on law enforcement rather than banks, which were sharing private customer information excessively to ensure compliance with the status quo.
  • He wanted the law to require that "no officer or employee of the United States may issue a National Security Letter unless a FISA court judge finds that probable cause exists" to justify it, endeavoring to change a status quo that has since been found unconstitutional in federal court.
  • He sought to stop national security officials from sifting through gun records while trying to track terrorists. 
  • He sought to "eliminates the possibility of "John Doe" roving wiretaps that identify neither the person nor the phone to be wiretapped."
  • He sought to restore the pre-Patriot Act standard for obtaining business and library records.
  • He sought to direct Attorney General Eric Holder "to establish minimization and destruction procedures governing the acquisition, retention, and dissemination of private information by the FBI."

This is the effort that Bruni has distilled for New York Times readers as "loopy." Is there any better example of how the "Paul is loopy" frame distorts coverage and egregiously misleads readers?***

Bruni goes on to write that "Paul personifies the G.O.P.'s curse right now. Although it needs to re-establish its bearings in the mainstream, many of the Republicans making the biggest splashes are rowing in from strange tributaries, and the establishment can't seem to stop the tide." For Bruni, the personification of the Republican Party's curse is someone who opposed the Iraq War, the policy more responsible than any other for the public's mistrust of the GOP; a man who wasn't in government during any Bush-era debacle (or the K Street Project); and who stands as a staunch, consistent advocate for civil liberties and foreign0policy restraint in his party.

Never mind all that. "Yes," Bruni writes, "his recent questioning of jail time for marijuana arrests isn't a certain winner, but it's not a surefire loser, either. And his immigration speech last week, which called for a path to citizenship without quite calling it that, suggested a fresh calibration and sensitivity. But his past brims with statements and stands that make him an unhelpful mascot for his party." Forget his record in the Senate. Focus on the dumbest things he said before getting there.

There isn't anything wrong with criticizing Paul. I thought his 2010 remarks on the Civil Rights Act were wrongheaded, said so at the time, and appreciate that he quickly changed his position.

I'll certainly criticize positions that he takes in the future.

What vexes me is seeing Paul constantly subject to reductio ad libertarium, even as critics like Bruni compare him unfavorably to Jeb Bush without ever delving into the latter man's support for the Iraq War or votes to impose mandatory minimums on drug offenders -- stands that Bruni would never dare call "loopy," though their costs compared to their benefits make them look that way to me. Paul "carped about the 'nanny state' in relation to seat-belt laws. Yes, seat-belt laws," Bruni scoffs. Is he aware that Bush repealed Florida's mandatory motorcycle-helmet law? And what possible justification is there for judging these men based on a seat-belt or a helmet law, anyway?

Disagree with their minor positions, sure.

But reading Bruni, you start to suspect he'd be more bothered by a presidential candidate opposed to seat-belt laws than one who wants to keep nonviolent marijuana offenders in jail and wage war on Iran. Like so many journalists, Bruni has adopted heuristics about what positions render a politician "crazy" that don't stand up to even cursory scrutiny, causing him to attach outsized importance to relatively unimportant stances while ignoring consequential ones, and even leads to journalistic mistakes, as with his misleading characterization of Paul's Patriot Act efforts.

It's time to abandon this frame for good.

__

*Bruni, a former restaurant critic, has made several appearances over the years in my newsletter of exceptional nonfiction, including this fantastic piece about a kosher pizza place and wine bar in Brooklyn. If he took the time to understand people like Paul he'd probably write much better reviews of their oeuvre. 

**Opposition to the original Patriot Act netted one vote. Former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold later said that casting that lonely vote was one of the best things that he had ever done.

***Here is the New York Times editorial board complaining about many of the provisions Paul was trying to address with his amendments.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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