Rand Paul has grabbed headlines, but his impact on national debt remains to be seen

In his first months in office, Sen. Rand Paul has made the media rounds, released a book and unveiled an ambitious budget planThe

habdullah@herald-leader.comMarch 27, 2011 

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul took the podium at a Rotary Club of Louisville meeting Thursday and started his speech with a joke about whether his boyish curls were real.

Then Kentucky's junior senator — arguably the most high-profile face of the Tea Party movement — chided congressional predecessors on both sides of the aisle for not doing enough to curb the ballooning national debt and managed to slip in a few plugs for his new book, The Tea Party Goes to Washington, for good measure.

And, as he did all week, Paul played coy when asked about his 2012 presidential ambitions. He vowed not to run against his father, Republican U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, but added that "if he does not run I have not ruled it out."

"Our debt is a serious problem," Paul said. "That platform needs to be represented in 2012 and I want to influence who that candidate will be."

With that, the newly-minted senator made national news — again.

In his first months in office, Paul has released a book, made the rounds on the national media circuit espousing his philosophy on debt reduction and authored a budget plan that calls for $4 trillion in cuts that he says will generate a $19 billion surplus in five years.

Although it's too soon to discern exactly how much impact the Tea Party's rising star will have on the congressional debate over reducing the debt, it's clear that he has a knack for grabbing headlines.

"Rand Paul has quickly established himself as a leader in the Senate by challenging Washington's status quo with bold ideas to balance our budget and increase personal freedom," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. "He's done more in three months than some senators do in their entire careers."

DeMint, who helped cultivate a crop of congressional Tea Party candidates, gave Paul his seal of approval during last year's campaign season, even as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell endorsed GOP establishment favorite and former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson.

DeMint was one of the few lawmakers to stand next to Paul on March 17 as he unveiled the 65-page budget reduction blueprint that his staff has been working on since his first day in office.

True to his campaign promises, Paul's plan calls for eliminating the departments of Commerce, Education, Housing and Urban Development and Energy, repealing the health care law, nixing other smaller agencies and trimming the budgets of several agencies.

During his Senate campaign, Paul also said he's interested in elevating the Tea Party's message of fiscal conservatism and helping shape the debate on federal spending and debt reduction.

"For a newly minted freshman senator, he's been more effective than usual in getting publicity and getting news coverage of his causes," said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. "The Tea Party as a whole became an obsession during last election. He actively embraced the Tea Party brand and has positioned himself as a spokesman for that brand."

Paul's effort to deliver on the campaign promises he made to the base of the Republican Party has been well received, said Tripp Baird, director of Senate relations for Heritage Action for America, a conservative political group.

"He promised he would do a budget that would balance in five years and he's sticking to his word," Baird said. "It's going to ruffle feathers up here, but people, when they talk to Rand Paul, they realize, 'Look, he knows the issues and he's got a plan.'"

Paul's ambitious modus operandi may win him kudos among diehard supporters, but it certainly won't win friends and influence people when trying to cultivate important relationships and coalitions in the Senate, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Paul is not part of the so-called "gang of six," a bipartisan group of lawmakers working on a debt solution. Nor is Paul among the group of Republican leaders regularly called upon to have tête-à-têtes with the White House on reducing the federal debt.

Paul also "wouldn't be in the top tier" were he to run in the GOP presidential primary. His short tenure as a senator would make President Obama's short time as the freshman senator from Illinois look like a lifetime by comparison, Sabato said.

"Part of it may be that he looks and sees so far no pure Tea Party candidate is running," Sabato said. "Is there room for someone like Rand Paul? Sure. This is a free-for-all and I'll be surprised if we don't have some surprise candidates. Having said that, you don't win a presidential (election) on the fly. You need to have raised money and spend time in South Carolina, New Hampshire and Iowa."

So far, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is the only Republican to take the formal step of creating a presidential exploratory committee. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are almost certain to run.

Tea Party favorites Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee, and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann also are mentioned as possible Republican presidential contenders, as are Ron Paul, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and John Huntsman, a former Utah governor and soon-to-be departing U.S. ambassador to China.

So far, Paul's greatest contribution to the debate over debt reduction may be his ability to highlight the issue using the media buzz that seems to follow him wherever he goes.

During a recent appearance on The Daily Show, host Jon Stewart gave Paul credit for sticking to his pledge to tackle the debt.

"I give you credit, sir, for being the walkiest of the talkers," Stewart joked.

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