How does Rand Paul do it? He's not someone who can give a speech that'll make you cry, like Barack Obama can, and he's not someone who lights up a room like Bill Clinton. He's never written a law, let alone an important one that improved people's lives. Nobody thinks he's some kind of super-genius. When he first came on the political scene he was stumbling all over himself to reconcile his quasi-libertarian beliefs with mainstream opinion. And yet he gets way more attention than anybody else running for president. While it would be foolish to talk about anyone being a front-runner at this point, he seems to have at least as good a shot as anyone at being at least one of the main contenders vying for the Republican nomination. So how does he do it?
Let's take a look at today's case study, a front-page article in the Washington Post about a trip Paul took to Guatemala to do some charitable ophthalmological work. (Paul is an ophthalmologist.) The Post sent a reporter down with him, at no small expense, and the result is an overwhelmingly complimentary story. It isn't that the reporter doesn't display any skepticism about the stage-managed aspect of the whole thing, or do his best to glean whatever insight he can about who Paul is from the event, because he does. But in the end, just because this is a story about Rand Paul doing charitable work on his August vacation, the reader unavoidably comes away thinking, "Isn't that Rand Paul a nice fellow?"
This is yet another demonstration of just how good Paul is at working the press. As the article says, this trip was planned months ago, and it's convenient not just because the August congressional recess is when Paul has time (frankly, he could have skipped while Congress was in session and not missed anything), but also because that's when congressional reporters have nothing else to write about. It can be hard to come up with things to fill your news pages about in August. So a story about a presidential candidate on a trip like this one is much more likely to happen then than if Paul's people told the Post about it in April or November. It also helps (as Paul certainly understands) that a trip like this is worthy of a story because it's a happening, in a way that something like releasing a policy proposal isn't. It's a story you can write with events and characters (like the people getting eye surgery), which makes it much more compelling to journalists.
But an understanding of the requirements of news isn't all Paul has going for him. Up until now he's used his libertarian impulses to great advantage. They make him just different enough from other Republicans to be interesting. The press loves politicians who are different. You don't want to be so different that you can dismissed (like Paul's father), but a little different is perfect.
The trouble is that once the presidential campaign starts in earnest, it becomes harder and harder both to find opportunities to be different and to create your own news events. You have to do the same stuff every other candidate does—do the zillion debates, go to the state fair, etc.— and the guy who's a little different has to work to convince the primary voters that actually, he's not different, he's exactly what they want and expect. So Paul has brilliantly gotten himself to the point where he'll be a contender in the big show, but he may going to need an entirely new strategy to succeed there.
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