Political Hay

Rand Paul and the Washington Aquarium

Bamboozled by a pesky outsider.

By 3.28.14

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Earlier this week, a debate was held in Great Britain between Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage, head of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), over the future of the European Union. Clegg took the pro-EU position while Farage argued against the super-state. UKIP, best described as a libertarian populist party, has experienced a meteoric rise in British politics recently, thanks to the rakish Farage and spreading anti-EU sentiment. It’s finished ahead of the ruling Conservative Party in several off-year elections, each of which seems to hurl British establishmentarians into fresh paroxysms of shock.

Yesterday they were shocked anew. After most analysts proclaimed either a Clegg victory or a tie, snap polling found the British public thought Farage won the debate 57 percent to 36 percent. The Guardian reported that the results “sent a wave of surprise around the ‘spin room’ of politicians, aides and journalists.”

Columnist Peter Hitchens was somewhat less bowled over:

If you want to know what’s going on in the country, the inhabitants of the Westminster Aquarium are the last people to ask. (‘Westminster Bubble’ is too kind. They peer out, goggling at puzzled, at the real cold world from their warm, dim depths, they are regularly and generously fed from above by a mysterious hand which they rely on but never question, and they fly about in shoals, dashing this way and that, bereft of any individuality).

Here in America, we have a similar habitat: the Washington Aquarium. Its waters are a bit fresher than Britain’s fish tank—less reliant on elite schools like Eton and featuring a small but vocal school of populists—but its fish are just as walled off from the country they govern. And nothing demonstrates this better than the rise of Senator Rand Paul as the GOP frontrunner.

Since the Tea Party appeared on the political scene, official Washington has been hard at work concocting snide dismissals of the movement: it’s the last gasp of white America, 2010 was an anomaly, Todd Akin singlehandedly lost the 2012 election for the GOP. Paul has stubbornly defied these critiques, working behind the scenes to push the Republican Party in a more populist direction and winning the occasional political battle, most notably when he swung public opinion against the Obama administration on drones after a grueling filibuster.

Now, with Chris Christie’s fortunes sinking beneath the George Washington Bridge, Paul is suddenly the Republican frontrunner for 2016. Washington graybeards have long regarded Paul as a political belly dancer—exotic, interesting at times, but unfit for polite society and to be kept away from the children. Confronted with his newfound popularity, the fish are assuring themselves that their goggled conception of What Americans Want is correct and Paul is still just a creature of the fringe. Paul’s libertarianism “has no real chance of taking over the Republican Party, let alone the nation,” writes the New Republic’s Michael Kazin as bubbles rise from his mouth.

The actual polling data says otherwise. A recent George Washington University Battleground survey found that voters are deeply dissatisfied about the economy and hold both political parties in low esteem, leading pollster Celinda Lake to declare 2014 “an anti-incumbent year.” Sixty-one percent favor a smaller government with fewer services and 60 percent want the federal government to cut spending, according to Rasmussen. Even on the holy tabernacles of Social Security and Medicare, a Reason-Rupe poll finds Americans support reform so long as they get back the money they put in. Other surveys show concern over government surveillance and revulsion over preemptive war.

UKIP is flourishing because the British are fed up with the sovereignty-gobbling European Union. Likewise the United States has its own infernal machine of bureaucratic destruction: Obamacare. After years of mismanagement on everything from education to foreign policy by both Republicans and Democrats, the president’s health law, from its inception to now, has been a gaudy neon sign advertising everything people despise about Washington—political sausage-making, coercion, red tape, ineptitude. Polls show the public disapproves of Obamacare by margins of anywhere from nine to nineteen points.

But Obamacare is only the most visible target of a wider discontent, which transcends party lines and even ideology. Rand Paul, who can elicit applause at both CPAC and Berkeley for essentially the same speech, has tapped into that sentiment better than anyone. That doesn’t mean he has to be its standard-bearer. He could peter out or destroy himself with a gaffe. Voters could decide they buy the argument that a governor with a beefy track record is preferable to a senator. But the fact remains that Paul, regarded as a freak by fish tank denizens, is more aligned with current public opinion than any other candidate.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about digestion...We think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else.” For those in the aquarium who think about politics constantly, the usual templates apply: two political parties setting aside differences to solve problems. For the public, many of whom are newly involved in politics after so many of those solutions backfired, it’s the aquarium itself that’s the problem. If Paul can run a competent campaign on that message, the pundits might be rocked yet again by a wave of total surprise.

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Matt Purple is The American Spectator's assistant managing editor.