The Rand Paul Opportunity: Hang the Tea Party Albatross Around the GOP's Neck in 2010--Nationwide

05/23/2010 10:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What's getting the most attention right now is Dr. Paul on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Bravo Rachel Maddow. And of course that is the most offensive of his loony libertarian literalisms. But that's not what Democrats should focus on going into the November elections. That issue invites Paul and other Republicans to insist, yet again, that they are not racists, while acknowledging a few seemingly nuanced differences on how best to counter racism and, anyway, whatever--those civil rights laws are ancient history.

In fact the Paul campaign and the Republican satraps (after multiple conference calls, you may be sure) are already doing exactly that. And it will pass muster with the swathe of Middle American voters the GOP is counting on in 2010. They don't care that much about racial justice, trust me. So let's not fall into that trap. Call me paranoid, but I'm even wondering if they didn't put Michael Steele out on the Sunday talk shows to keep the focus on the civil rights issue while Dr. Paul in his fullness disappears into the news cycle maelstrom.

Because what the voters the Republicans covet do care about is their food and medicine and family members with dangerous jobs and stuff like that. Those are issues that federal agencies like the FDA and OSHA address, and those are the issues Democrats should focus on with a vengeance--in Kentucky and all over the country. Because on those issues Rand Paul is so far out there he might as well be on another planet. And those are national issues and Rand Paul is a candidate for national office who is openly and avowedly bringing Tea Party ideas to the national stage under the Republican banner.If the Tea Party issued cards, he said in an interview last month, "I'd be a card carrying member."

In his victory speech he said: "I have a message, a message from the Tea Party. A message that is loud and clear and does not mince words. We've come to take our government back."

He is not referring to the Kentucky state house. So that's that. He's stuck.

Grown-ups in the Republican party (it's relative thing) understand the danger of the Rand Paul candidacy going national. That's why they opposed him in the first place. That's why they talked him out of going on Meet the Press this Sunday (you can be sure they mentioned Palin's interview with Katie Couric). And that's why they are urging him to please, please, just focus on Kentucky and, in Senator John Kyl's words, avoid philosophical debates "like you had at 2 a.m. in the morning when you're going to college."

There are signs in that last link and this one that Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, Dr. Paul's Democratic opponent, is sensing which way to go in his election.

But here's my point: it's not just Conway who should laser in on the role of government in protecting the public against corporate carelessness or malfeasance. Every Democrat in the country who is running against a Tea Party Republican--or even just one who is kowtowing to them--should be focused on Rand Paul's libertarian views and pushing opponents to answer questions like this:

What about salmonella in spinach and chicken--do you think government has a role to play in preventing that? What about E coli bacteria in ground beef--do you think government has a role to play in preventing that? What about new drugs from big pharmaceutical companies--do you think government has a role to play in ensuring their safety? What about the language that banks use when they peddle mortgages and credit cards--do you think government ought to set some standards of clarity there? What about sticky accelerators in cars?

And so on. It's especially important to get in phrases like E coli bacteria. It's automatically bad, in a Frank Luntz sort of way, to be put in a position of shrugging off those bacteria. But, on that question, as on all the others, the position of loony libertarians like Rand Paul, the Tea Party candidate, is that the federal government has little or no role to play in such matters. Leave it to the states. Given the reality of interstate linkages in the marketing of food and drugs--hell, international linkages, think Chinese toothpaste--in today's economy, that position is more than loony. It is a fundamental challenge to any conservative with a brain. It's an application of abstract principles that Edmund Burke might expect of Robespierre.

Well, OK, Let's not get too high falutin' here. The point is that many Tea Partiers and most of their sympathizers love their Social Security and their Medicare. And so do the voters they are hoping to enlist in the Republican interest in 2010. How will they feel about protection from E coli?