Rand Paul's Plagiarism, and the Weird Man's Burden


There are two scandals regarding a national politician's veracity this week. One is about a president lying about his signature, transformative legislative achievement, while his administration lies and prevaricates some more in the face of being caught selling the American public a bill of goods. The second initially centered around a senator lifting movie-description passages from Wikipedia in his speeches. You could almost see the thought bubble around Rand Paul's head–how could they possibly be nitpicking me in this of all weeks? But that is exactly the wrong response, both externally and internally, as new revelations make even more clear.

First came word Sunday that a whole 1,318-word section of Paul's book Government Bullies was lifted from a Heritage Foundation study (the think tank just shrugged). The latest is that a September Washington Times op-ed the senator wrote on mandatory minimums, and also testimony he gave on the subject to the Senate Judiciary Committee, was lifted from a recent piece by Dan Stewart in The Week.

Taken together, these sloppy, undergraduate-level infractions suggest strongly that Sen. Paul is running a loose ship, one not currently ready for the prime time of winning a national election.

"There are technicalities to this, but nothing I said was not given attribution to where it came from," Paul said prematurely last week, in response to the first wave of Wikipedia discoveries. "[People are] making a mountain out of a molehill….It's a disagreement about how you footnote things." By "people" he especially meant MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, who (along with Buzzfeed) has been stoking this controversy: "She's been spreading hate on me for about three years now," he complained. On ABC's This Week on Sunday, Paul even wished out loud he could challenge his critics to a duel.

There are two fundamental problems to this kind of defensive response. The first is managerial–what kind of message do you send staff by waving off such juvenile, 100% avoidable unforced errors as "technicalities"? That's like putting up a sign in the office saying "substandard work welcome here." In a world of free plagiarism-detection services, the time to begin scrubbing old speeches for possible problems was last week, when the senator was busy lashing out at his critics.

The second problem, which cuts straight to the heart of the difference between Rand Paul and his dad, is that he's actually trying to win the presidency. If your goal is to genuinely compete in a general election with your once-marginalized ideas, instead of building a revolutionary movement at the margins, then you don't need to be as clean as the competition–you need to be cleaner. Why? Call it The Weird Man's Burden.

Rand Paul, like his father, has a lot of "weird" ideas, at least in the cramped context of how "responsible" two-party politics and governance has played out over the past several decades. He thinks the drug war is a failure and has introduced ways to peel it back. He wants to balance the budget in five years, and slash several federal departments. He believes in the Fourth Amendment. He is anti-interventionist to the point that when I asked him repeatedly earlier this summer to name American military conflicts during his lifetime he would have retroactively supported, the only he came up with was deposing the Taliban after 9/11. You and I may think those positions are within the bands of normality, but libertarians are still less than one-quarter of the population

The Weird Man (and Woman, bien sur), very crudely speaking, has two broad avenues available for changing the system: from within, and from without. Since us weirdos are often, well, weird, there's a natural attraction toward hopeless, beautiful, philosophically pure fires on the sidelines. (This isn't libertarian-specific—it's true of any group whose issue or issues have been consistently disregarded over time.) Henry David Thoreau wasn't trying to fix slavery and imperialistic war from within Washington, he simply refused to pay his taxes and headed off into the woods to write. It is emotionally satisfying to give the finger to The Man, and out there on the margins it is an affirmation, not an occasion for self-reflection, when the mainstream and its apologists attack you, whatever the reason. 

The other avenue for Weird Man change-making goes not into the woods, but into the streets, television screens, and halls of power. It is an inherently compromising approach–even Martin Luther King was dismissed in his lifetime as a sellout. As King and many of the most effective Inside-Gamers have learned, however, it can be an incredibly effective tactic to present your claims with more dignity, decorum, and "self-purification" than the mainstream you aim to change. Think about it–gay rights at first was the stuff of revolutionaries and outrage-generating paraders, but the gay marriage debate really took off with a bullet when those two sweet old ladies got married in San Francisco. The movement to legalize marijuana by necessity began with the gray-ponytail crowd, and will end with square-jawed businessmen in suits. This is not to state a preference for one of the two main avenues of change–Rand wouldn't be a national politician without Ron's rEVOLution–but rather to identify the characteristics of the path that Rand has very obviously chosen. 

So what does that mean in this instance? If he wants to run for president, he needs to be better, not worse, and not merely as good, as the competition when it comes to the most seemingly trivial matters of comportment. Journalists, particularly (though not only) from those outlets sensitive to the allure that libertarian ideas have on some progressive voters, will be gunning for every possible gaffe, glitch, error of judgment, and stated deviance. He should consider it an honor to be challenged, instead of a challenge to get huffy about.

People who choose the Inside Game know, or at least should know, that the deck is stacked against them, and that they will be judged more harshly. Those were always the rules. On the upside, being the first real truth-teller inside an empire of lies carries with it enormous galvanizing potential. Whining about being picked on in this context is like complaining about getting fouled when you drive to the hoop against Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn. The answer is to dunk the damned basketball, not bitch to the refs. And for god's sake, make sure your shoes are tied.

It's actually helpful for Rand Paul's presidential ambitions to be having these mini-kerfuffles in November 2013. It's doubtful that they will have any impact on the 2016 race, and he could clearly use the practice.