Rand Paul’s acolytes often claim the senator gets marginalized because of his ideas. It’s because he’s a libertarian, they say, that he’s not treated fairly by the media. It’s a hard argument to make. Paul is a staple of the mainest of all mainstream media, the Sunday shows, and widely considered a top-tier presidential contender by middle-of-the-road analysts.
But let’s imagine the junior senator from Kentucky were a woman. Not just any woman—let’s call her Randi—but, for the sake of this argument, a beautiful woman. The “men want to sleep with her, women want to be her” echelon of physical attractiveness. Everything else is identical: self-certified eye doctor, first-term senator, and she got the job with a boost from her father.
While the Republican Party is taking a nosedive in popularity, she says: “Does anybody remember Charlie Sheen when he was kind of going crazy ... And he was going around, jumping around saying ‘Winning, winning, we’re winning’? Well I kind of feel like that, we are winning. And I’m not on any drugs.”
People snicker about how dumb she is. Twitter erupts with sarcastic hashtags: #RandiLulz, #CandywithRandi and #RandiLogic. She’s considered a ditz—the Senate’s answer to Michele Bachmann. Still, Randi gets ratings!
People tune in to her media appearances just waiting for her to say something stupid. It’s like NASCAR—part fandom, part hoping for a crash. It’s self-perpetuating: Because she’s shameless and gaffe-prone, she becomes fascinating at a Real Housewives level. Her profile grows, and soon the conventional wisdom is that she’s very popular. Pundits deem her a kingmaker. “People find her very compelling,” liberal talking heads concede. Conservatives say Randi is Everywoman, the voice for mothers and career women alike. “And look, we’re talking about her again!” they all agree.
But Randi has a problem with the facts. They seem to elude her. She repeatedly says we have a trillion-dollar deficit when, according to the CBO, it’s only $642 billion and falling sharply. Plus she mixes up deficit and debt. The Beltway press diligently points this out, smirking. She’s “ambitious”—a word her detractors say with a snarl. “But easy on the eyes,” her supporters counter. The debate becomes Pretty vs. Pretty Dumb.
Randi tries to position herself as above this fray. "The fact-checking is not fact-checking. These are people with a bias. It's purely an opinion. The stuff is so ludicrous I don't even read it,” she says of her critics.
The headline is: “Randi Admits She Doesn’t Read!” The Internet breaks out in a rash of mansplaining. She’s dubbed Bluegrass Barbie.
Randi tries to show off her policy chops to prove she’s serious. Not just about a potential presidential run, but generally “serious.” She’s a lawmaker—a senator! All the giggling at her flubs makes her seem “unserious.” The media chides, “She wants to be taken seriously.”
So she uses the filibuster. She spends 13 hours railing against the use of unmanned drones. Yes, unmanned drones. An issue that would bring the country together! Civil liberties and constitutional rights all rolled into a perfect issue. "Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?" she demands.
When the administration says no, it’s hailed as a major triumph for her. But the next month on Fox News, chatting a little too comfortably with Neil Cavuto, she blunders: “If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and 50 dollars in cash, I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him.” Oops.
“Bluegrass Barbie Does a 180 on Drones!” Now she’s called a Drone Bimbo. Men who otherwise think of themselves as progressive take to Twitter and spend their free time calling her a dingbat (or worse).
Then an interview with Businessweek comes out. Asked specifically to name a “nondead” ideal Federal Reserve chairman, Randi answers, “Friedman would probably be pretty good, too, and he’s not an Austrian, but he would be better than what we have.” Milton Friedman died in 2006. The next two news cycles are guffawing about Madam President’s zombie cabinet: Paul of the Dead.
“Hacks and haters!” Randi replies. The media hangs on her every word. They use her lack of civics knowledge as a peg to write explainers. On Syria, Randi says: “I think the failure of the Obama Administration has been we haven’t engaged the Russians enough or the Chinese enough on this, and I think they were engaged.” And because it’s the Drone Bimbo, we’d have weeks of blog posts about Cold War proxy battlefields pointing out that Russia is not on the same side as the U.S. in Syria.
Randi inspires a genre of columns: Ms. Paul said this, what she doesn’t understand is this. Late-night hosts ask people on the streets the same questions Randi got wrong and are tickled by those who get it right and forgiving of those who also get it wrong. Since everyone agrees she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, Randi is referred to as Senator Sex Kitten.
Next come the serious think pieces asking whether Randi Paul is smart enough to be president. “Ms. Paul has drive and voter appeal, but her weak grasp of basic economic and foreign-policy issues makes even her most ardent supporters pause,” pundits write. They all entertain the idea that sexism plays a role in how the media treat her, but solemnly insist that doesn’t negate her basic lack of competency when it came to policy issues.
When Randi is caught plagiarizing a couple of speeches, an op-ed, and a few pages of her book, she fires back at reporters. “If I were their journalism teacher in college, I would fail them,” she says.
But her lecture on media ethics is greeted with the same seriousness as complaints from her fellow Republican Sarah Palin. Randi had no credibility to lose. She was already a national punch line. A meme. A joke. A shiny distraction. And now she’s also a proven plagiarist. She’s referred to as “silly.” A silly airhead. There’s a collective condescending chuckle at the thought of a girl like her in the Oval Office. Right?
So the question is: Why not for him?