By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT – I’ve enjoyed a front-row seat for the past three and a half years at the Rand Paul show. It has been interesting.
Like others, I was surprised how easily he overcame the Republican Party of Kentucky establishment and the efforts of Sen. Mitch McConnell on behalf of Paul’s primary opponent, Trey Grayson, and by his rapid rise nationally.
But it didn’t take long to see Paul had tapped into something real. I kept running into Republicans who by every measure – personal and party ties, history, and self-interest – ought to have supported Grayson but instead were going to vote for Paul.
I couldn’t explain it, but, I could see it was real.
Like a lot of other reporters, I enjoyed interviewing Paul and those who so fervently backed him. It was difficult not to be impressed with how forthrightly he laid his views before a Kentucky electorate that had so little in common with Paul. He was more than willing to explain his views in serious, thoughtful, philosophical discussions about public policy, constitutional history and economics.
People who depended on the largesse of the federal government overwhelmingly supported the man who constantly called for those programs to be drastically cut back or eliminated.
(I’ll never forget the Somerset grandmother who said she loved him because he opposed higher taxes and runaway federal spending – and then told me it was hard for her and her husband because their only source of income was their Social Security.)
Religiously conservative evangelicals flocked to Paul rallies despite his libertarian roots and views which said the federal government had no business regulating morality and shouldn’t be in the business of fighting drug abuse.
I finally landed on two hypothetical reasons for Paul’s popularity: First, a lot of Republicans, even those in the poor, government-dependent counties of the Fifth District, were so suspicious of Washington and politicians – Republicans as well as Democrats – that they simply wanted to send a defiant, “we’re mad as hell” message regardless of their self-interests.
Paul was their man.
Secondly, they were taken by Paul’s willingness to say what he believed even if those things appeared impolitic. He was willing to criticize Republican spending and hypocrisy just as happily as he denounced Democrats or to call for cuts in defense spending along with cuts in entitlement programs.
That’s why I was surprised by a comment he made while grilling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week. No, I wasn’t surprised when he said, “Had I been president at the time and I had found out you had not read the cables ... I would have relieved you of your post.”
That’s the line so many have focused on. Paul supporters loved it. Critics condemned it for being out of line or for exposing Paul’s own presidential ambitions.
But it was an earlier statement that struck me.
“Ultimately, I think with your leaving, you accept culpability for the greatest tragedy since 9/11,” Paul said to Clinton, implying that is why she’s leaving.
Wasn’t the Republican outcry over Susan Rice’s statements about the Benghazi attack couched in complaints she was being considered as Clinton’s successor at the State Department? You know, the Secretary of State who had previously announced she would not serve a second term, announcing her intention prior to the attack.
Paul also criticized Clinton for failing to beef up security at the embassy. But Paul previously submitted a budget proposal that would have savagely cut spending for the State Department.
It makes one wonder: Could Paul be just another politician willing to say whatever advances his ambition after all?
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/