Rand Paul is in the spotlight tonight. He's enjoying Scott Brown-like status as the Most Powerful Republican In The World. And look: he says he represents the Tea Party movement. So that must be the end of it, right?
Well, being the son of Ron Paul, and having a name like him (Ron, Rand), matters. That's a less cliche way of saying that election results are the product of candidates and their environment, with money, endorsements and issues playing a secondary role.
The Tea Party finally has a real notch in its belt. Rand Paul called them to power tonight.
But let's be careful about giving this amorphous movement too much credit. Rand Paul first attracted attention in Kentucky because he was Rand Paul. Then he married his anti-government message to his father's economic libertarian movement. He parried against an opponent, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who embodied the establishment. Nevermind that this establishment was doing everything in its power to thwart Barack Obama ... politics doesn't always make sense. But Paul was change. A specific kind of change. He was acceptable enough for frustrated conservative base voters. And he's going to be a tough candidate for Democrats to beat in the fall.
Paul represents pure, unadulterated libertarian-conservative id. He's not a candidate of sound bites or self-censorship. He seems authentic. Authenticity is a myth, because Paul is a product of so many different strands of American history and thought, but it endears a candidate to voters who think Washington is fake.
"America's greatness hinges on us doing something to save the country," Paul said. "Saving the country from a mountain of debt. We now have a president though who apologizes for America's greatness."
Ok, we're still kinda on track here.
Then Paul begins to speak about Copenhagen. And President Obama cozying up to "Mugabe and Chavez." Something about apologizing for the industrial revolution. And how the administration wants to stop capitalism.
We're a little off track now, maybe. As much as Rand Paul wants to be the avatar of the Tea Party movement, he's kinda just being Rand Paul.
We still haven't figured out how to distinguish between Tea Partiers and base conservatives. Here's the way I propose it: Tea Partiers are best identified by their media consumption habits (Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity) and whether they adopt a specific variant of conservative populism, one that is rooted in an originalist interpretation of the Constitution, a pastoral view of the past, and a sense that the world is escaping the boundaries of their comprehension. The rest are just plain, average conservatives. Anti-establishment sentiments -- what does that mean, exactly? Fox News is as much a part of the Republican establishment as Mitch McConnell is. No, the Tea Partiers and conservatives, or Tea Party conservatives, are protesting what's getting done, versus what's not getting done. The more success President Obama seems to be having, the angrier the Tea Party becomes. I do not think this is a coincidence. What is true: the Tea Party movement is now firmly yoked to the Republican Party's near-term future.
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is a former contributing editor at The Atlantic