Beltway Confidential

Rand Paul is not ready for prime time

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On Tuesday, the Washington Free Beacon’s Alana Goodman reported on an aide to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who had a long and colorful history of neo-Confederate sympathies. If you aren’t already familiar with the story, it’s best to read Goodman. But basically, during the 2000s, Jack Hunter, known by his moniker “The Southern Avenger,” was a South Carolina-based radio shock jock who wore a pro-wrestling style mask emblazoned with the Confederate flag, advocated secession, chaired the League of the South, and celebrated the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Hunter went on to work for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign before working on Rand Paul’s 2011 book, and he now does social media outreach work for Paul. I’ve largely let this story play out without commenting, but now feel compelled to after reading Paul’s utterly terrible response.

It’s worth noting first that several writers have come to Hunter’s defense. Daniel McCarthy of the paleo-conservative outlet the American Conservative, where Hunter has written, dismissed Goodman’s article as “cherry-picking” of old quotes. He added that “Jack has re-examined his thinking and confronted questions of fairness that the right has too often avoided.” He noted that Hunter now supports same-sex marriage, though he “respectfully disagrees with its comparison to the Civil Rights struggle, whose magnitude and sacrifices exceed anything else in the past century.” Andrew Napolitano also expressed support for Hunter. But none of the defenses dispute that Hunter said or wrote anything highlighted in Goodman’s article. Even Hunter himself writes, “The role of a radio host is different from that of a political operative. In radio, sometimes you’re encouraged to be provocative and inflammatory. I’ve been guilty of both, and am embarrassed by some of the comments I made precisely because they do not represent me today. I was embarrassed by some of them even then.” I don’t profess to know what’s in Hunter’s heart, but from a pure public relations perspective, it isn’t very convincing to argue that your current more moderate tone is really genuine while at the same time confessing a willingness to publicly misrepresent your views if the job calls for it.

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Paul defended Hunter, accepting the youthful indiscretion argument. “Are we at a point where nobody can have had a youth or said anything untoward?” Paul asked rhetorically. He later added, “It was a shock radio job. He was doing wet T-shirt contests. But can a guy not have a youth and stuff? People try to say I smoked pot one time, and I wasn’t fit for office.”

A few points on this. To start, this isn’t about one controversial comment, but a decade of extremism. Also, it can’t really be chalked up to his youth. In 2009 — so recent that Obama was president — Hunter wrote this:

In my early 20s, I was a full-blown, right-wing radical. As a member of the Southern secessionist group the League of the South, I argued seriously for the states of the old Confederacy to break away from the rest of the Union…By the time I graduated from rock radio to talk radio and began writing for the Charleston City Paper, I thought it might be better to tone down the radicalism and at least try to appear more respectable. But when I came across an old column of mine last week, I realized that I never really changed. I’m still just as radical or crazy, depending on your perspective. In fact, I might be getting worse.

Hunter was 35 when that column was published — old enough to be Constitutionally eligible to be president, yet evidently still too young to reject secession. In fact, at that time, by his own suggestion, he was becoming even more radical.

It’s also quite tone deaf for Paul to defend Hunter’s previous insensitivity by arguing that he was doing wet t-shirt contests. So the fact that Hunter also demeaned women during his shock jock period is supposed to absolve him?

There are a few broader points to draw here — one as it pertains to limited government philosophy and the other as it pertains to Paul’s political future. Let’s be clear. Nothing in American history has done more harm to the limited government cause than the association of state sovereignty arguments with defenses of slavery. Confederates who employed limited government arguments to argue for preserving a brutal and inhumane practice shouldn’t be deemed friends of limited government. Having an abstract argument about secession is one thing. But within the context of the Civil War, it’s clear that ultimately, the South was seceding to preserve the institution of slavery. That Paul is tolerant of neo-Confederate views — whether or not he personally holds them — undermines his drive to become a credible champion of limited government. This leads us to his political future.

Dave Weigel, who has reported on the Pauls about as much as anybody in Washington, recalls the racist newsletter controversy surrounding Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns, and writes that, “The lesson Paulworld took from the ‘associations’ scandals of 2008 and 2012 is that there’s no real long-term damage from such scandals; Paul ended up winning all of Iowa’s gettable delegates in the county caucuses, and his allies took over the state party.” But they did have a long-term effect. The elder Paul underperformed in New Hampshire both times and never burst out of niche candidate status. Rand Paul, however, has been working hard to break through that ceiling of support. His Senate career has been a delicate balancing act meant to mainstream many of his father’s views while maintaining a critical mass of his father’s energetic supporters. Ever since his successful filibuster of President Obama’s drone program, Paul’s star has been on the rise, leading many pundits to take him seriously as a contender in 2016. The Hunter controversy alone won’t kill his political ambitions, but his obtuse response demonstrates he still isn’t ready for prime time.

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