Michael Gerson's Centrist Paranoia About Rand Paul


He's the statist on the right. ||| Eric Draper/White House
Eric Draper/White House

Earlier this week, Michael Gerson wrote a Washington Post op-ed concluding that "Republicans, in the end, cannot #StandWithRand." The piece was notable not just because Angry Bird Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called it a "must-read," or because Gerson was a speechwriter for former president George W. Bush and author of the 2009 manifesto Heroic Conservatism, but because it's a classic outburst from what Reason's Jesse Walker has memorably christened "the Paranoid Center."

Start with the conspiratorial headline: "Rand Paul masks his true worldview." Masks? Really? The man recently discussed his worldview for half a day on the Senate floor, and has written two books chock full o' worldview since arriving in Washington. Yet Gerson is eagle-eyed enough to see through the cover-up:

[I]n the course of a 13-hour filibuster, it becomes impossible to hide your deeper motivations. Paul employs the prospect of drone murders in an attempt to discredit the "perpetual war" in which "the whole world is a zone of war." His actual target is the war on terrorism, which he regards as unconstitutional and counterproductive.

Well, praise the Devil and pass the hot sauce! Rand Paul thinks–accurately–that the war on terrorism is "perpetual," and that its practitioners and supporters do not recognize geographical boundaries on its waging, also largely true. Nothing about those views is secret, masked or hidden; Paul talks about this stuff constantly.

The one with the white shirt. ||| Eric Draper/White House
Eric Draper/White House

Gerson's lead paragraph is an awe-inspiring attempt to make Rand Paul seem so conpiratorial that he's hiding his paranoid tendencies. Check it out:

Since arriving in the Senate in 2011, Rand Paul has been probing here and there for issues of populist resonance. Audit the secretive, sinister Federal Reserve. Rein in those TSA screeners patting down little girls. In each instance, Paul (R-Ky.) has evoked the fear of oppressive government without tipping over into the paranoia of his father's most dedicated supporters. It has been a diluted, domesticated, decaffeinated version of the ideology that motivated Ron Paul's presidential races.

Follow the "secretive, sinister" link and you'll get a Sen. Paul "Audit the Fed" press release that has not even a whiff of "sinister," unless you count this sentence: "The Fed's operations under a cloak of secrecy have gone on too long and the American people have a right to know what the Federal Reserve is doing with our nation's money supply."

Is Michael Gerson saying that the Federal Reserve is not "secretive"? Is he saying that the TSA somehow doesn't pat down little girls sometimes? Nah–he just wants Rand Paul to look like a paranoid kook, and therefore exclude him from the arena of respectable debate. Which Gerson tried to do, without success, after Paul won an upstart GOP primary in May 2010:

There is an even smaller subset of the tea party movement comprised of libertarian conservatives, representing a more developed intellectual tradition. Their goal is not just federalism but a minimal state at home and abroad. Their commitment to individual freedom—defined as the absence of external constraint—is nearly absolute. Taxation for the purpose of redistribution is theft. The national security state does not defend liberty; it threatens it. American global commitments are just another form of big government.

The closest this sect has come to serious political influence is Rand Paul's victory in Kentucky's Republican Senate primary this week. Paul has attempted to become more electable by distancing himself from the worst libertarian excesses. […]

Paul and other libertarians are not merely advocates of limited government; they are anti-government. Their objective is not the correction of error but the cultivation of contempt for government itself. There is a reason libertarianism has never been—and likely will never be—a national political force: because too many would find its utopia a nightmare.

Gerson predicted back then, with breathtaking inaccuracy, that conservative leaders "will either repudiate Paul's candidacy or they will be tainted by Paul's extremism." Equally ineffective was the compassionate conservative's follow-up warning in July 2010:

The Republican wave also carries along a group of libertarians, such as Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul. Since expressing a preference for property rights above civil rights protections—revisiting the segregated lunch counter—Paul has minimized his contact with the media. The source of this caution is instructive. The fear is not that Paul will make gaffes or mistakes but, rather, that he will further reveal his own political views. In America, the ideology of libertarianism is itself a scandal. It involves not only a retreat from Obamaism but a retreat from the most basic social commitments to the weak, the elderly and the disadvantaged, along with a withdrawal from American global commitments.

Libertarianism has a rigorous ideological coldness at its core. Voters are alienated when that core is exposed. And Paul is now neck and neck with his Democratic opponent in a race a Republican should easily win.

Bolding mine, to focus the attention.

Those conservatives who have been attempting to marginalize Rand Paul in the way that they marginalized (with more success) Rand's father Ron, are in an increasingly uncomfortable position: railing against one of the few Republicans who is attracting more popularity both within and outside of the GOP. Why, they might even be inconvenienced enough to have to grapple with Rand's actual ideas, as opposed to the black-helicopter paranoia of their own invention.

Reason on the libertarianophobe Gerson here.