Sam Youngman

Sam Youngman: For Rand Paul, the rules of politics just don't apply

Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul delivered a speech at the Fancy Farm picnic in August.
Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul delivered a speech at the Fancy Farm picnic in August.

Rand Paul was wearing cowboy boots, jeans and a white shirt made of hemp, assailing a president who he said acts like a king, drawing murmurs of approval from the crowd standing on the hot August blacktop outside of Ray Jones and Triple J Trucking in Greenville.

After warning that President Barack Obama "doesn't care about Kentucky jobs" and "damn well wants to bankrupt coal," Paul seamlessly injected some 17th-century French philosophy into the mix.

"Montesquieu was one of the philosophers they talked about when our founders wrote the Constitution," Paul said Wednesday. "And he said that when the executive begins to write laws, when the executive assumes the legislative power, that that's a form of tyranny."

In one breath, Paul moved from paraphrasing De l'esprit des lois (The Spirit of the Laws) to red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama for his "war on coal," closing with a full-throated endorsement of McConnell, the embodiment of the Republican establishment.

It was everything we've come to expect from watching a presumed presidential candidate who defies expectations. Think you've got him figured out? Wait 10 minutes.

And there it was again Thursday. The day after campaigning hard for McConnell — the man perhaps despised most by the nation's liberals — Paul penned an op-ed in Time magazine, calling for the demilitarization of police and speaking out on race issues in the wake of violent police and protester clashes following the shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old black man in Ferguson, Mo.

It spread like wildfire.

Joe Trippi, who managed Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, posted the link on his Facebook page. The Washington Post said it was why Paul is "the most interesting man (or woman) in the Republican Party today."

It was just days ago that video of Paul leaving a confrontation between U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa and immigration activists earned the senator some widespread mockery after he appeared to flee from some seriously bad optics.

Before Paul and McConnell took to the podium Wednesday morning in an auto shop in Hartford, the Democratic National Committee reminded reporters that in 2008, Paul called coal a "dirty fuel." Days before, Paul was nailed in an apparent reversal of position over cutting off foreign aid to Israel.

By Thursday night, Democrats were cheering him on for saying things that few other Republicans have about criminal justice and race relations.

Who is this guy? How does this keep happening?

For Paul, the rules of politics just don't seem to apply.

Joe Biden plagiarizes a speech and drops out of the 1988 presidential race. Paul does it, and it slowed him down only long enough to begrudgingly embrace footnotes and casually mention dueling his critics on Meet the Press.

Go down the list: The Southern Avenger? Paul's still standing. Aqua Buddha? Paul's still standing. Civil Rights Act? He's still standing.

He's the DNC's version of Jason Vorhees and Freddy Krueger. He's a car with no brakes or steering, flying down a winding mountain road and somehow staying in its lane.

But it eventually has to come to a tragic, fiery end. Right?

Not yet, because nobody on today's national political stage can seize a moment like Kentucky's junior senator, perhaps the most original and intriguing figure in American politics since Obama burst onto the scene in 2004.

Paul's op-ed was another head-turning moment from a guy who keeps making big plays against a boundless dossier of opposition research and with a seemingly endless capacity for surprise.

And it's not that Paul has a flair for the dramatic, Fancy Farm poetry recitals notwithstanding.

It's that the senator has identified a sweet spot in the Red State-Blue State divide, an issues matrix that creates a wormhole across the political spectrum.

Paul's efforts get space at the top of The Drudge Report and The Huffington Post. He zeroes in on issues that appeal to a common libertarian streak that runs from one political extreme to the other: the National Security Agency and government overreach, racial disparity in the criminal justice system, voting rights for felons.

Those are issues that draw passion without party ID. They're issues that make even some Democrats forget Wednesday's Paul when praising the one they see on Thursday.

Paul's presidential bid, months away from becoming official, promises to be a weird and fascinating ride that keeps observers hooked, waiting for the moment when it all comes crashing down.

But they've waited for that moment since Paul announced that he was running for U.S. Senate, and he's still here, quoting Montesquieu in Muhlenberg County, stepping up as a prominent voice in the middle of an explosive moment of racial tensions, giving a sneering Sid Vicious middle finger to conventional wisdom and expectations.

Who knows what's next? Camus in Cadiz? Balzac in Bourbon County?