Rand Paul’s Kentucky Derby
The Tea Partyers may simply have no foothold in this corner of Kentucky, but it's more likely that the Shirley Sherrod/NAACP video-clip scam, which had been exposed a few weeks before the picnic, withered their self-confidence. Certainly Paul, with his neatly groomed black aide, was sending no Andrew Breitbart–type signals. The night before at Calvert City, a couple of newly active Republicans told me they had named their upcoming mid-August demonstration in nearby Marion the Grassroots Conservative Rally because they did not "want to be associated" with the Tea Party. One said, "You know what the media is saying about them, making them appear to be..." and she mouthed the word "racist."
Moreover, we're not talking about a youth movement here. Most of the Paulites at Fancy Farm were like Rich and Rosie, a middle-aged radiologist and his wife, who moved from Louisville to Bowling Green thirty years ago, where they befriended Paul. They were here to support their guy, whom they spoke of with real affection; but it was 94 degrees in the shade, and their days of yelling like Wildcat fans were long past.
So when McConnell got booed all through his speech (worse than any other speaker), maybe it was the heat that delivered only flagging support from his side. Not that Mitch seemed bothered by that—keeping a tight little smile, he nodded to the cheers that his assaults on "Obama, Pelosi and Reid" generated and quickly sat down. Then Jack Conway, who'd won the toss, actually delivered the sort of speech expected of these events, getting a call-and-response rhythm going based on Rand Paul's defense of BP, ending with the call, "What did Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party say when Rand Paul won the primary?" "Accidents happen!"
Finally, Paul took the podium. After his performance the night before, you might have expected a laconic putdown of Conway's bellowed speech—but no. Paul started with a count of the pages in the federal tax code. He read his speech like it was a telegram, one sent from someplace far out of state and filled with words like "exponentially." When it was over, he skedaddled off the stage and into his waiting SUV without so much as a word to a single picnicker, trailing a desperate wake of reporters who couldn't catch his eye either.
To add insult to injury, three days later Paul went on Sean Hannity's radio show to suggest that Fancy Farm was a "wild picnic" where he and other politicians were afraid someone might "throw beer on us"—even though St. Jerome Catholic Church forbids alcohol and the county is dry. Paul apologized within hours, but his snub was statewide news.
But even if Rand were to personally insult every Kentuckian he meets every day until election day, it may not make any difference at all here. That's how poisoned the chalice George Bush handed to Obama was: with the bank bailout, the government put itself on the side of the people who are foreclosing on all the homes down here, and anybody on that side can go to hell. I have seen the way people put their hands in their pockets and look away when I lamely tell them I was born down here but moved to New York City thirty years ago. Strangling me would be impolite. "You were bailed out then, wasn't you?" a retired guard from the Eddyville State Prison said to me at Fancy Farm. "How nice for y'all."
It's not as if Kentuckians don't know what Washington can do—you can see the Kentucky Lakes from outer space, for God's sake. The first question for any Democrat has to be, Why has the government done so little about unemployment and restoring consumer confidence? Maybe Jack Conway can answer that better in the next two months than my brief experience of him on the stump showed. Or, as Conway evidently hopes, maybe Rand will order a Jack Daniel's and call it bourbon, or set fire to the Daniel Boone National Forest.
If not, it's like the Republican primary never ended, in a way. There are still two Republicans fighting it out: one young, native-born, rich and (this time) a handsome lawyer, and one a quirky outsider pushing economic fundamentalism. We know how that race turned out the first time.