Rand Paul’s Kentucky Derby
The first time I saw Rand Paul speak to an all-Republican audience was the Friday night before the Fancy Farm church picnic, the traditional opening of Kentucky's general election season. Paul was to appear before about 150 people at the sixth annual GOP fundraising dinner in the Calvert City Community Center, near Paducah; he would be the pièce de résistance of a night of speeches by Republican candidates for offices ranging from county commissioner to governor. While we waited for the speeches to begin, I sat at a folding table with Phil Moffett, a Louisville businessman and gubernatorial hopeful, eating ham sandwiches and baked beans, along with six or seven women.
Some were newcomers who had never been politically active before; others were old-line GOP, not so different from my mom, who left the Dems for Richard Nixon. You could spot the strain. When conversation about the time Barney Fife tried to make himself taller by pulling on his chin with a noose looped over a coat hook led naturally to talk of "chiropracty," and one of the younger women offered that she had been thrown from a truck during a "domestic violence incident," several of the older ladies seemed to close a third eyelid. Moffett, who pioneered a program to give religious school scholarships to disadvantaged kids in the public system, excused himself and left.
Like the Tea Party itself, these folks know what they're against—it's what they are for that seems to be shifting. When I noticed that Paul and his staff (including the only black person in the room) had quietly taken their seats at their own table, I asked one of the newly minted Republicans seated next to me if Rand was the reason she was here, and she surprised me. "Not really. We're here tonight to hear Lynn Bechler [candidate for 4th District State Representative], who we just love. But we got involved because, you know, you just have to, what with all that's goin' on in Washington. We have to save America."
The speakers before Paul all worked to soothe the stitching left from the last time the party reached out, in the 1990s, when evangelical Christians seized the grassroots—a transformation managed in large part by McConnell, beginning in 1984. Then as now, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans in Kentucky by two to one, and most state and local offices were held by Dems. But McConnell started turning the state's Congressional delegation red with his first Senate race, against Walter "Dee" Huddleston, winning on the strength of a funny ad attacking the incumbent's attendance record by showing a farmer in overalls trailing two bloodhounds asking, "Where's Dee?" Roger Ailes, now chief of Fox News, produced the spot, and McConnell became the first Republican sent to the Senate from Kentucky since 1968.
But it was very close, just four-tenths of a point. By 1990, when popular Louisville Mayor Harvey Sloane challenged for the seat, McConnell had the Christians on board. "I had the editorial support of the Courier-Journal and strong support among Democrats in the cities," says Sloane, a doctor who now runs the Eurasian Medical Education Program, which helps deliver medical care to patients with HIV and other diseases in Russia. "But when I went out into the state I found Mitch had wired all the churches together. There was nothing I could do."
McConnell was supposed to get this network behind Grayson's bid for the GOP nomination, but Paul's ability to talk about economic unfairness gave him the edge. But now, in the general, he finds himself relying on the same base. When the top Republican in Frankfort, State Senate leader David Williams, introduces Paul by saying, "Government should serve the people the way we worship God, at the foot of the cross," everybody applauds like he's praising the sun for shining.
But Rand Paul doesn't genuflect to his audiences, any more than he does at the foot of the cross. Paul starts out his speech quoting Emily Dickinson and T.S. Eliot and then moves on to Abe Lincoln. He does not so much as paraphrase God until the very end, when he asks His blessing on America. He denounces taxes, but he also doubles down on his call for agriculture cuts (in a state that depends on $250 million annually in federal farm supports), because we've "got to look at everything." He wonders darkly about the "enumerated powers" allowed Congress by the Constitution, complains about Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and says all Congress members should be required to read every sentence in every bill before they vote on it. To no one's surprise, he lambastes the bailouts, which "reward inefficient and corrupt management" and "threaten...to destroy our US dollar." Though the speech is entirely secular in theme and given in a professorial, matter-of-fact tone, a man in the back row keeps yelling, "That's right!" and "Tell it!"
I was impressed—who doesn't think somebody ought to be punished for those damn bailouts? Paul gave the speech without notes, calmly, almost as if he did not see his audience. He's like a dad who's scariest when he talks softly—Paul's rhetoric blows on the cold ember of an anger bitterly remembered.