Politics & Government

Rand Paul's plagiarism heat should cool down by '16, observers say

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul gestures Wednesday October 23, 2013 in a meeting with local media and local citizens in Morehead. Photo by John Flavell
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul gestures Wednesday October 23, 2013 in a meeting with local media and local citizens in Morehead. Photo by John Flavell Herald-Leader

Sen. Rand Paul has taken a beating in the cable news universe this week, but the controversy surrounding Paul's apparent plagiarism of Wikipedia entries might not hurt him long-term, observers said.

Paul, Kentucky's junior senator and a likely Republican presidential candidate in 2016, came under fire this week after MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, followed by Buzzfeed and Politico, found online entries that were nearly identical to portions of speeches Paul has given.

The first questions about plagiarism, raised by Maddow, involved a Paul speech in Virginia that apparently lifted language from a Wikipedia entry describing the 1997 sci-fi film Gattaca. A second instance, reported by Buzzfeed, involved a Paul speech and Wikipedia language involving the movie Stand and Deliver.

While the mini-scandal has swirled in prime time, Republican operatives and political analysts said Friday they don't envision the dust-up doing lasting damage if Paul pursues a White House run. The senator has said he won't make a decision before next year's midterm elections are over.

James Pindell, political reporter and analyst for New Hampshire's WMUR television station — the only major station in the state with the first presidential primary — said that people there have been more focused on pressing political matters and the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series.

"It is so early in the process and there are so many local issues for Republicans here to think about, few even know he is in the news," Pindell said. "This would be different if this were 2015 or if it happened to a different candidate. Through his father, Rand already has made his first impression here years ago."

A WMUR Granite State poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire and made public last week showed Paul narrowly leading the field over New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, though it should be seen as a statistical tie. Paul led with 17 percent to Christie's 16 percent.

David Kochel, an Iowa Republican operative and Mitt Romney's top Iowa strategist in 2012, said that plagiarism charges are nowhere near the level of concern for Paul that his fellow freshman senator and Tea Party hero Ted Cruz of Texas is.

"I don't think the plagiarism stuff has made the radar in Iowa. If Sen. Paul has any concerns in Iowa, it would be that some of the social conservatives who supported his father seem to be falling for Ted Cruz, who has really picked up steam in Iowa and is winning the hearts of the most committed Christian conservatives."

In public comments earlier this week, Paul and his staff downplayed the matter, calling it "trivial" in a statement and saying, for example, that in the Gattaca case, he was merely describing the plot of the movie, which he attributed to the movie. After Politico raised two new examples Thursday night, his staff took a more cautious tone in response.

On Friday, his staff declined to discuss the matter further.

The controversy may not have damaged Paul among his base supporters, a group unlikely to be watching MSNBC and more likely to stick with Paul anyway, observers said. Voters who were turned off, offended or even angry by Paul's misdeed were likely not going to support Paul no matter what.

"To the people who support him it doesn't matter," said Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign and a veteran political operative.

Madden said the far more lasting lesson Paul should take from this week's negative publicity is that even as a potential presidential candidate, Kentucky's junior senator would do well to remember he is under a microscope at all times.

"As you become more of a national figure... this is the level of scrutiny that is guaranteed for every move you make," Madden said. "It used to just take place in a town hall, and the only people who remembered it were the 100 people who were there. In the digital age, it goes everywhere, and it goes directly in someone's oppo file."

Earnest Yanarella, chairman of the University of Kentucky's political science department, said that another lesson Paul should take from this chapter is that when he is "caught with his fingers in the cookie jar" and the story cannot be spun, he should come clean quickly to limit the public fall-out.

"Full stop, end of excuse, then you go on," Yanarella said, noting that a number of famous authors who have been accused of plagiarism have not seen their brands diminished.

"There's a certain amount of egg on their face, but their reputations were not diminished," Yanarella said, pointing to authors like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose.

"I don't think it's a disqualifier by any means. All politicians take shortcuts."