Can two years of hard work be undone with a few seconds of talk radio chatter? Rand Paul's campaign is about to find out.
Its problems started on Tuesday morning, right after what seems to have been the apex of civil unrest in Baltimore. President Obama had spoken out about the angry, occasionally violent reactions to the death of 25-year old Freddie Gray. Paul, asked by Laura Ingraham to critique the president, talked briefly about "the breakdown of the family structure," then tried to land a joke.
"I came through Baltimore on the train yesterday," he said. "I'm glad the train didn't stop."
The Ingraham comment was published first by Brendan James at Talking Points Memo. It took a little time for the "train" line to become a problem. By Wednesday morning, The Washington Post was placing the comment into a narrative about how Paul's "language seems to have shifted" on criminal justice. By Wednesday evening, Gawker was asking why Paul wouldn't "tell the truth," and admit that all Amtrak trains were still stopping in Baltimore. (The area around Baltimore's Penn Station was perfectly calm throughout the unrest.) And by Thursday night, the most popular story on Politico was about how "Rand Paul blew it on Baltimore," complete with quotes from black leaders saying that the Kentucky senator had been exposed as a phony.
Paul's campaign aides were alternately baffled and apoplectic. "We’re listening and learning every day and we learned from this," said Paul advisor Elroy Sailor in one of several defensive clean-up interviews. "We’re also leading this conversation." This was one reason for the harsh tone of a Wednesday campaign statement, criticizing Hillary Clinton's criminal justice speech by accusing her of "emulating proposals introduced by Senator Rand Paul over the last several year." Paul's team was quietly furious at how years of work on criminal justice reform—five of Paul's bills are waiting for votes—was tossed aside for a quick story about a guy "missing his moment."
The problem is that Paul never used to miss these moments. In 2013 and 2014, as Paul established himself as a Republican leader on NSA reform, drone warfare, police abuse and the war on drugs, he seemed to weigh in on everything. In those years, a call or email to the right spokesman would elicit either a quote, a plea to hold on while the quote was composed, or—surprisingly often—a link to the column Paul had just written. He wrote three pieces for Time magazine, a few more columns for Politico, and eighteen pieces for Breitbart, most of them to start or win arguments that were in the news.
The last of these columns ran in February—which happens to be when his communications chief, Brian Darling, left for the private sector. Darling declined to speak on the record, but it's easy to infer that Paul's missed a step since his Senate communications team was reduced to one person, Jillian Lane. Last week, Paul responded to drone strikes that had killed turncoat American citizens—an issue he'd become an expert on—with a short statement and a brief discussion on Fox and Friends.
Three weeks earlier (as noted in every "Rand Paul blows it" column), Paul arrived in Charleston, South Carolina for a speech and addressed the killing by police of Walter Scott in some media interviews. His comments to CNN, the New York Times, and Bloomberg were overwhelmed when he did not explicitly mention Scott during the speech itself. "In the midst of this national discussion on an issue that he wants to be known for," snarked MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, "Senator Rand Paul, bravely today, while he was in South Carolina, said nothing about it."
In Paulworld, this feels like a pile-on, both unfair and unlearned. The senator simply isn't inclined to leap into the story of the day. He largely eschews the hallway interviews that other senators use to quickly make news. He prefers to sit and compose an argument, then shoot it into the conversation, on his own terms. It took him days to respond to the Ferguson unrest, and he followed up his column on it with a personal visit to the city. Where was the backlash then?
There was no backlash, because Paul was not yet a candidate for president. The hunger for him to react is insatiable now; the press that dubbed him the "most interesting man in politics" and a "one-man think tank" is less forgiving. In his first month as a candidate, Paul missed three major opportunities to lead on his causes.