Is Rand Paul another Goldwater?

In yesterday’s post on Rand Paul I mentioned that his comments about the public accommodation provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 evoked comparisons with the late Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican Presidential candidate, who, after voting against the Act, went on to lose the election in a landslide.

I was somewhat dismissive of this line of reasoning, and noted that Goldwater lost, not because of his vote on the Civil Rights Act, but because the Democrats “successfully convinced voters that he would blow up the world”.

Now I’m having a few second thoughts.

It is true that Democrats successfully labeled Goldwater a warmonger. But they also were successful in painting him as an extremist. And, in that, they had a lot of help from the candidate himself.

Goldwater was famous for his brutal honesty. He went to Florida and told retirees that Social Security should be made voluntary. He went to Tennessee and told voters the Tennessee Valley Authority should be sold to privately owned electric utilities. He told wheat farmers that the price support program should be repealed and oil executives that import quotas would have to end.

Good ideas, all. He just picked the wrong time and place to express them.

Now Goldwater’s philosophical descendant Rand Paul is in trouble again, this time because he criticized the Obama Administration’s attacks on BP over the company’s handling of the oil spill.

“What I don’t like from the President’s Administration is this sort of, ‘I’ll put my boot heel on the throat of BP,’ ” Dr. Paul said Friday on Good Morning, America. “I think that sounds really un-American in his criticism of business. I’ve heard nothing from BP about not paying for the spill. And I think it’s part of this sort of blame-game society in the sense that it’s always got to be someone’s fault instead of the fact that sometimes accidents happen.”


I don’t think the statement is wrong. It seems to me that much of the response to the oil leak (it’s a leak, not a spill) has been about fixing the blame. We should fix the problem first; we can fix the blame later. (I also take issue with the focus on the leak’s effect on the environment. What about people? Eleven workers were killed in the explosion that caused the leak, and the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people who make their living from fishing and shrimping are in danger.)

Dr. Paul would do well to take his cue from Ronald Reagan instead of Barry Goldwater.

Reagan was in fact more conservative than Goldwater. Yet his victory over Jimmy Carter was as big as Goldwater’s loss to Lyndon Johnson. This wasn’t because Reagan concealed his “true” views. He just knew how and when to pick his fights. Even more importantly, he was able to empathize with the voters. He wasn’t called the “The Great Communicator” for nothing.

There was no reason at all to even bring up the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If Rand Paul gets elected to the Senate and serves there until he is 100, the chance that he would ever get to vote to repeal the law is practically nil.

And his comments on the administration’s attacks on BP failed to reveal any empathy with the real victims of the leak. Had I been advising him, this is what I would have told him to say:

I am very disturbed that the Obama Administration seems to be far more interested in scoring political points at the expense of BP than they are in stopping the leak. Let’s stop the leak first, then we can worry about who’s to blame. The livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people along the Gulf Coast are in danger, and that should be our first concern.

Had he said this, he would have gotten across his point about the Administration’s misplaced priorities while showing a real concern for the people affected by the tragedy.

Political campaigns are driven by sound bites. Philosophical musings are great in graduate seminars and scholarly papers, but at the end of the day you have to persuade real people with real problems to vote for you. And they don’t want philosophizing; they want to hear how you’re going to solve their problems.