On the eve of Rand Paul’s likely primary victory over Trey Grayson, I want to make a few observations about the importance of Paul’s candidacy and the apparent failure of party and movement establishment figures to defeat him. First of all, Paul is one of a very few Republican candidates in the country who is truly serious in his desire for fiscal responsibility. In his hostility to expansive government and reckless spending, he does not make exceptions for military spending, and he is appropriately skeptical of government power whether it comes in the form of military adventurism and empire-building or sweeping social legislation and bailouts. Paul is the candidate of both austerity and peace, which is why he is particularly terrifying to David Frum, who has spent many years arguing for an agenda that values neither.
It is possible that Paul’s positions will be too fiscally conservative and too sensible on national security for his state’s electorate, but it is also quite possible that Paul could be representing Kentucky in the Senate next year. Oddly, Frum consistently makes the same mistake that many Republican officeholders and activists make in their total opposition to any and all of the administration’s agenda: all of them believe that the policies that they believe are correct are also going to yield electoral success. Right now, winning by default during poor economic times and total rejectionism seem to be working for the GOP, though perhaps not as well as many Republicans think they are, but this is the opposite of what Frum said would happen if the GOP did not become more accommodating. The Kentucky Senate seat is not going to be in jeopardy if Paul wins tomorrow, nor are we on the verge of a massive Republican blowout in the midterms driven by a public backlash against government spending. Virtually everyone on the right is investing election outcomes these days with far more ideological meaning than they actually possess, and to the extent that there is an ideological message in the backlash going on right now almost everyone is misinterpreting it.
In another state at another time, Paul’s Senate run might have ended up as nothing more than a protest candidacy, but things seem to be coming together to make victory possible. Fiscal austerity is generally a very unpopular message: it demands that voters either pay for the services they want or it says that they have to do without those services. It is not normally a vote-winner, because it goes against the basic assumption of most democratic voting for at least the last eighty years that we should regularly look to government for assistance. Even if Paul wins, it will not necessarily prove that unflinching fiscal conservatism is always the key to electoral success, even in Kentucky, and Paul’s example may not be easily repeated elsewhere. In many ways, Kentucky is a very unrepresentative state. While Democrats have a significant registration advantage there, the state still went heavily for McCain (57-41%) during a second consecutive Democratic wave election and it has voted heavily for Republican candidates for President in the last three cycles. What succeeds in Kentucky will not necessarily translate to larger, more urbanized, more diverse states. That is an argument for giving local candidates more flexibility in how they appeal to their voters and recognizing that a party trying to push a uniform agenda nationwide is going to make itself uncompetitive in many parts of the country.
What Paul’s likely win tomorrow suggests is that the close identification of national security conservatives with the party leadership significantly blunted the impact of Grayson’s attacks on Paul on these issues. If the Kentucky primary electorate is in a fiercely anti-establishment, anti-Washington mood, what could be better for Rand Paul than to be denounced on a fairly regular basis by establishment Republican politicians and pundits? For his part, Paul has been careful to emphasize the issues where most Republican voters seem to agree with him rather than stressing points of dispute. The efforts to misrepresent many of Paul’s views on social issues also seem to have backfired and weakened the effectiveness of the overall negative campaign against Paul. The push to derail Paul’s candidacy because of his insufficiently hawkish views should also remind rank-and-file Republican voters that national security hawkishness trumps all other issues.