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August 08, 2014 12:42 PM A Tough Week For Sen. Pearl Jam

By Ed Kilgore

I haven’t commented yet on Robert Draper’s much-discussed New York Times Magazine piece entitled “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?” That’s partly because my instinctive hostility to libertarianism (possibly due to an early high-school brush with the adolescent virus of Objectivism) means I have to calm down and think clearly before writing of such things. And it’s partly because Draper’s piece—while fascinating like everything the man writes—spends a lot of time retailing dubious libertarian claims that this or that generational trend on a scattered assortment of issues means The Movement is on the brink of some national breakthrough (as Draper notes, we’ve heard that before).

But the most interesting part of the piece is the increasingly familiar idea that Sen. Rand Paul has the skills and flexibility to launch some sort of gussied-up version of the Eternally Correct Ideology with enough mass appeal to conquer the GOP and then the nation. It’s analogous to how some movement conservatives looked at Ronald Reagan, who wasn’t as simon-pure as Barry Goldwater by any stretch of the imagination, but was trusted to have the best interests of The Cause foremost in his mind, and knew where to trim and prevaricate in the pursuit of votes. One of Draper’s aging hipster libertarian interlocutors offered a similar analogy of Rand Paul being Pearl Jam to his old man’s Nirvana.

I’ve earlier talked about Rand seeking to advance some sort of Big Tent Libertarianism that’s soft enough around the edges and weasely enough on tough issues to be tempting to many regular Republicans looking for a change of pace without abandoning core anti-government and Obama-bashing principles. He’s been pretty good at it in the past (viz. his election in not-exactly-hipster Kentucky), but as I’ve been noting, he’s struggling now with a pattern of self-contradiction and transparent flip-flopping. As usual, Charlie Pierce sums it up pungently after noting the snares Paul has become entangled in after his flight from DREAMers at a fundraiser with Steve King earlier this week:

America’s brogressive love-puppet speaks the weaselspeak like a native, doesn’t he? He doesn’t want any contact with the berating scofflaws, but he wants them to have work permits, but not in-state tuition. In four or five days, he will likely reverse all three of these reversals of positions. He will feel very strongly all three ways and, also, free pot! All in all, I am disinclined to agree with my friend Bob Draper that we are living through the libertarian moment, at least as represented by Senator Aqua Buddha. This is because “the libertarian moment” is a scam.

Paul has similar trouble sticking to a coherent position on all kinds of issues, from abortion and same-sex marriage (often relying on the usual “federalism” dodge when he’s not taking the most hard-core positions imaginable and/or suggesting these shouldn’t be “priorities” for the GOP) to national security and fiscal policy. The big question is whether in running for president as a first-term senator he has enough base support beyond his old man’s Revolution to ever get to the point where non-libertarians are confronted with the option of finding him acceptable. If I were him I’d go off on a retreat with the Koch Brothers and whoever else he relies on for serious money and advice (leaving the hipsters at home) and hammer out a platform and strategy he can stick to for an extended period of time. The day-to-day improvisation is beginning to sound less like Pearl Jam than the Experimental Blues/Jazz Jam from This Is Spinal Tap.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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