Commentary: Rand Paul is more show horse than workhorse in Senate

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul David Perry/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT

There are two kinds of people in Congress: workhorses and show horses. Few show horses have pranced and preened as much as Rand Paul has during his first months as a United States senator.

The Kentucky Republican's election last November came amid a perfect storm of voter discontent with the political establishment. Otherwise, Paul never could have defeated an accomplished secretary of state in the primary and an accomplished attorney general in the general election.

Paul has become one of the most high-profile members of the Tea Party movement in the freshman class of Congress. He owes much of his celebrity status to his father, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who has been a gadfly presidential candidate for both the Libertarian and Republican parties.

His appeal may also have something to do with his first name, which reminds people of the late novelist Ayn Rand, whose fairy tales of libertarian utopia still enthrall some conservatives.

Paul has spent a lot of time in front of cameras and microphones this year, especially on friendly venues such as talk radio and the Fox News Channel. He has been busy promoting his new book, The Tea Party Goes to Washington, and flirting with a run for the presidency, even though the Bowling Green eye doctor has no previous political experience or apparent qualifications for the job.

Much of the attention Paul has received from media not in the business of promoting right-wing politics has come because of his controversial statements. Those include a rant against water-saving toilets during a congressional hearing and last week's complaints about government over-regulation of dairy farms that were based on information he should have known was not true.

The most significant thing Paul has done so far as a senator is to propose a budget-balancing plan that has no chance of ever happening. It would slash $4 trillion in spending by basically doing away with much of the federal government.

Like a somewhat less-radical plan by Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, it is based on the same tax-cutting, anti-regulation philosophies that caused the economic crisis and ballooned the federal deficit in the first place. Both schemes would be good for corporations and wealthy people and bad for everyone else.

Paul also has endorsed the idea of a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget. That sounds good in theory, but most economists think it could be disastrous. That is because it would prevent the government from acting to minimize damage from the economic crisis.

Public opinion polls show little support for radical spending cuts, just as they show declining support for the Tea Party movement. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll last month found that 47 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of the Tea Party movement, an increase of 21 points since January 2010.

Both the political left and right like to claim a mandate from the "American people," but the truth is that the nation is pretty evenly divided. What most people want is for both sides to work together to solve problems, not battle over ideology.

If Paul has any desire to become an influential member of Congress — and not just a show horse — he should take some lessons from the Senate's Republican leader and his fellow Kentuckian, Mitch McConnell.

Even those who don't agree with McConnell's politics or admire his values acknowledge that he is a master politician. He can aggressively push his agenda but still find ways to achieve beneficial compromise. McConnell knows how to work with opponents and get things done.

The media will eventually find another show horse to ride, especially if the public continues growing weary of the zealots of the Tea Party movement. Unless Paul can find ways to serve his constituents and actually accomplish something in the Senate over the next six years, I suspect Kentucky voters will be quick to put him out to pasture.